- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. military’s moves to crack down on high seas piracy have done little to deter the epidemic of ship ransoms that preceded Sunday’s Indian Ocean rescue, a top Navy official said Sunday.

Instead, pirates have merely headed elsewhere to avoid a growing armada of U.S. and international warships, said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

Despite heightened ocean crackdowns that led to criminal charges against 130 suspected pirates over the last three months, “it wasn’t having an effect of drawing the number of attempts down,” Gortney told reporters during a telephone conference call from Bahrain.

The latest example of the military’s handling of the Somali pirate problem was the most dramatic. It ended Sunday with the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips after Navy snipers fatally shot three Somalis who were holding him captive at gunpoint.

The 18-foot pirate boat was within 20 nautical miles of Somalia’s coast when Navy SEALs opened fire, said a U.S. military official with knowledge of the events. The pirates had tied up Phillips and were pointing an AK-47 assault rife at his back, said a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Acting on authorization from the White House to take action in order to save Phillips’ life, “the on-scene commander saw that the weapon was aimed at him (Phillips) and took it as that pirate was getting ready to use that weapon on him,” Gortney said. “That would be my interpretation of imminent danger.”

For months, the Navy has sought to prevent or disrupt scores of ship hijackings near the Gulf of Aden. More than 100 ships off the Horn of Africa came under siege in the past year.

But as the Navy began focusing on the Gulf of Aden and seeing results, Gortney said, the pirates shifted their activity south into the Indian Ocean. Over the past week, pirates commandeered at least seven new ships, including the Maersk Alabama.

The movement to the Indian Ocean is worrisome because the expanse is one of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes, with oil vessels and other merchant ships carrying billions of dollars worth of cargo.

“As a result of our activity and a lot of Navy presence up in the Gulf of Aden, we saw both attempts and successful attacks go down,” Gortney said. “But the last couple of weeks, we saw activity, attempts and successful attacks occur on the east coast of Somalia _ where this one did.”

Gortney said the Navy has been warning cargo ships to stay in deeper waters, away from the Somali coast, and to better protect themselves by hardening their ships against attacks. The Maersk Alabama was 230 nautical miles off the coast when it was briefly hijacked before the crew retook the cargo ship.

Additional Navy ships also have been sent to the region to patrol for pirates, Gortney said.

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