NEWS

American Crew Retakes Ship from Somali Pirates

By Matthew Harwood

The American crew of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia this morning, has reportedly retaken the ship, although pirates fled in the ship's lifeboat with one crew member, according to press reports.

"Somalian pirates have one of our crew members in our lifeboat and we are trying to recover that crew member," Colin Wright, the third mate aboard the Danish-owned ship, told the Associated Press (AP).

It appears the captive is the vessel's captain, Richard Phillips, The New York Times reports.

According to the AP, U.S. warships have been dispatched to the scene. Lloyd's Register reports the closest U.S. warship was more than 300 nautical miles away at the time of attack.

The seizure occurred 250 nautical miles of the coast of the Somali town of Eyl in the Indian Ocean around 7:30 a.m. local time. It was the sixth act of piracy within the past week but the first hijacking of a U.S.-flagged vessel by Somali pirates.

"Now the weather has improved, they're back in business again," Rashid Abdi, of the Brussels think tank International Crisis, told the BBC.

The recent flurry of pirate activity indicates that Somali pirates have adapted to the recent influx of multinational naval patrols by operating farther from the Gulf of Aden. According to The New York Times on Monday:

Most of last year’s 120-plus pirate attacks were centered on the relatively narrow Gulf of Aden, a strategic waterway between Yemen and Somalia at the mouth of the Red Sea. That is where most of the navy patrols are, too, and several recent attacks on merchant vessels have been thwarted by helicopters and frigates speeding to the rescue.

The pirates, however, have avoided the naval patrols by moving farther out to sea as well as down the East African coast, Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program in Mombasa, Kenya, told the Times.

One observer believes the pirates are further aided by rivalry between European Union and NATO warships. According to Bjoern Seibert, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, writing at Foreign Policy's "The Argument" blog last week:

Everyone loves good sport, but the EU-NATO rivalry is pointless and perhaps even counterproductive in this case. To cover a vast, remote area of operations quickly, efficiently, and in the absence of host nation support, coordination between the forces is vital. With separate command structures, duplications and even contradictions are unavoidable, likely at the expense of an efficient, cohesive anti-piracy effort.

Already, maritime operations are expensive. At a time when defense budgets in the United States and Europe are strained by financial crisis, inefficiencies due to pure institutional rivalry are not justifiable.

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