NAIROBI, Kenya – This time the Maersk Alabama was ready. This time it did what a multinational naval force couldn’t. Guards used guns and a sound blaster Wednesday to repel the second pirate attack on the U.S.-flagged ship in seven months.
But while the effort was hailed by one naval commander “as a great example of how merchant mariners can take proactive action to prevent being attacked,” it highlighted a growing schism over how ships traveling pirate-infested waters should deal with the problem.
The U.N.’s maritime agency warns against putting arms on ships although that is increasingly the case amid unrelenting hijacking attempts by young and impoverished Somalis seeking multimillion-dollar paydays.
“Somali pirates understand one thing and only one thing, and that’s force,” said Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the father of a sailor aboard the Maersk Alabama the first time it was hijacked, in April.
Then, pirates took ship captain Richard Phillips hostage, holding him at gunpoint in a lifeboat for five days. U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters freed Phillips while killing three pirates.
Wednesday, the ship had weapons onboard to save itself.
Despite an increased international flotilla of warships off the Horn of Africa, maritime figures indicate the number of ship boardings has remained about the same in the past year. And pirate attacks have spiked around the globe in 2009, according to a report released this week.
The number of attacks worldwide rose to 306 from January to September, surpassing the 293 incidents recorded throughout 2008, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur. There were 44 pirate boardings and hijackings by Somali pirates in 2008 and 42 so far this year, according to the bureau.
Somali pirates hold 11 ships and 254 crew members, a U.N. diplomat said. Attacks have increased in recent weeks as the monsoon season has subsided.
Poverty and hunger are driving the number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean around Somalia, which has not had a central government since 1991 and has been bloodied by war since then.
A member of a Spanish fishing trawler who was freed from pirate captivity with his crew on Tuesday after a $3.3 million ransom was paid said his captors were emaciated men ranging in age from 20 to 40. Their assault rifles “were so heavy they bent the men over backward,” Iker Galbarriatu told the Madrid newspaper El Pais. “They would not have been able to shoot without falling down.”