- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

The captain who was rescued by Navy SEALs after his ship was hijacked off the Somali coast warned that arming crews with weapons is not enough to protect merchant ships in pirate territory and instead called for “comprehensive” approach that includes a military escort of U.S.-flagged vessels.

Captain Richard Phillips was unable to discuss before a Senate panel his abduction by Somali pirates because of pending criminal charges against the sole survivor, but he detailed the steps he thinks governments should take to combat rampant piracy off the Horn of Africa.

“These pirates are evolving, and we must stay with the curve and evolve with them,” he said. “There is no silver bullet, there is no one step, but I would say force protection [is the best solution].”

Mr. Phillips was kidnapped by four Somali pirates who boarded the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama after he reportedly offered himself as a hostage in exchange for his crew. His abduction, which sparked a flurry of worldwide media coverage, resulted in a dramatic standoff that ended with Navy snipers onboard the USS Bainbridge killing three of the pirates.

Acknowledging that the United States and its allies may not have enough resources to patrol the entire region, Mr. Phillips said ships themselves could be structurally “hardened” to make them more resistant to pirates. If crews were to be armed, only the top four officers onboard should have access to weapons, he said.

“We all must understand that having weapons onboard merchant ships fundamentally changes the model of commercial shipping and we must be very cautious how it is done,” he said.

John P. Clancey, chairman of the company that owns Mr. Phillips‘ ship, warned that arming crew members could result in even more weapons being acquired by hijackers and noted that many ports of call do not allow firearms in their waters. He also said they could cause potential civilian deaths.

“Everyone’s at risk,” he said.

But several senators questioned the wisdom of not allowing trained seafarers to have guns onboard.

“This is so clear I think to everyone that we all have an inherent right to self-defense in international waters,” said Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat. “The idea that there wouldn’t be protection onboard these vessels - with the hugely expensive cargoes and all the rest of it - doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

Mr. Phillips said ships could be effectively protected by an armed detail of three highly trained soldiers or private security agents on board. Currently, merchant ships, including the Maersk Alabama, have used fire hoses against pirates trying to board.

But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry noted that official military escorts would be costly.

“That’s a big expense too, and it also carries risks,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “It seems to me if you’re putting one person as a skipper in charge of that ship, that value and the value of those lives, you can trust that captain with a key and a lock and an armory.”

Other ideas that were floated included a “sea lane” concept under which merchant ships would only travel in a “lane” that is routinely patrolled by the military.

Stephen Mull, senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for political affairs, described piracy as “a symptom of the problem in Somalia that really requires urgent attention to be fixed.”

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