US captain’s rescue may mean trouble for other hostages

April 14th, 2009 - 10:40 am ICT by IANS  

Nairobi, April 14 (DPA) Three shots from US Navy snipers, and the drama was over. Three Somali pirates lay dead and Richard Phillips, the American captain held hostage on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean since Wednesday, was free.
Crew members on the Maersk Alabama, the ship the pirates tried to seize only to end up with the consolation prize of its captain, celebrated as news emerged Sunday night that Phillips had been rescued.

They cheered, fired off flares and draped a US flag over the side of the ship in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, where the Alabama docked Saturday after reluctantly leaving its captain to his fate.

According to Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, head of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the on-scene commander made a “split-second decision” that Phillip’s life was in danger and ordered the snipers to open fire from the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer trailing the lifeboat.

The unexpectedly firm action sent out a message to the thousands of other pirates that have plagued Somalia’s coastal waters for years.

How they respond will play a part in the fate of the hundreds of other hostages still being held. Over 200 crew are in pirate hands - Filipinos, Italians and Romanians among them.

The worry for these hostages and those that will be taken in the future is that the killings may lead to a stronger pirate response.

“This (Phillip’s rescue) could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it,” Gortney told reporters Sunday.

Until now, there have been few deaths associated with piracy off Somalia in the past few years, despite hundreds of attacks.

The Russian captain of the MV Faina, carrying tanks and ammunition from Ukraine to Kenya, died of a heart attack after his ship was hijacked in September.

Florent Lemacon, the owner of a yacht freed by French forces Friday, died during the rescue effort, although France has acknowledged he may have been shot by his would-be liberators. Two pirates were also shot dead during the raid.

Somali pirates are not rabid killers. Rather, they are young men looking to make easy money in a country where other options are limited.

In general, pirates have looked after their hostages in the hope of receiving a fat ransom, but this may be about to change.

Immediately after Phillip’s release, other pirates threatened revenge against the US and warned that from now on they will kill hostages at the slightest sign of force.

Piracy experts are also not optimistic that the US action will put other pirates off further hijackings.

“We are hoping this will discourage others, but at this stage I very much doubt it,” Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, told DPA. “There are a lot of pirates out there and each ship is worth at least a million dollars.”

French naval forces have never been shy about taking captured boats by force. The storming of the yacht Friday was the third such French action in a year.

Yet piracy has continued to climb.

Equally, sending in warships to patrol the region has failed to send the pirates scurrying back to their hideouts in Puntland, the semi-autonomous region of Somalia where many of the gangs are based.

In 2008, pirates seized over 40 vessels in and around the Gulf of Aden and collected tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, prompting the international community to send in a naval force at the tail end of the year.

Around 15 warships from the European Union, a US-led coalition task force and individual countries such as Russia, India and China are now patrolling the area.

However, after a brief lull in January and February, which piracy experts say was due largely to bad weather, the pirates are back with a bang.

They have attacked 18 ships over the last three weeks. Five of those ships are in pirate hands, joining others that have been held for months.

As the US Fifth Fleet acknowledges, the area is simply too big - around 2.85 million sq km - to patrol effectively. Pirates are also now venturing farther into the Indian Ocean to avoid the international patrols.

Ship owners are being encouraged to take defensive measures and there is a growing debate about reviving the practice of arming crew members on commercial vessels.

International observers, however, have long said the only way to nip piracy in the bud is to sort out the unholy mess that is Somalia, which has been without a functioning government since 1991 and is plagued by lawlessness.

“The ultimate solution for piracy is on land,” Gortney said. “Piracy stems from lawlessness, lack of governance and economic instability.”

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