- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

WASHINGTON — Commercial ships working pirate-infested waters should be protected by an armed corps of senior officers backed by the government, Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips told Congress Thursday, emphasizing all must operate under a clear chain of command.

“I am not comfortable giving up command authority to others, including the commander of a protection force,” Phillips said in remarks prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and obtained by the Associated Press. “In the heat of an attack, there can be only one final decision-maker.”

Phillips, who was held by pirates for five days this month and rescued by Navy SEALs, was the star witness during a series of hearings as Congress considers ways to combat a spike in piracy against ships carrying billions of dollars in cargo and humanitarian aid.

Modern-day piracy, the experts were to testify, is the product of lawlessness in places like Somalia and is motivated by money more than ideology. It’s a dangerous business nonetheless, with pirates carrying small arms and rocket launchers.

The International Maritime Bureau recorded 111 attacks in the waters off the Horn of Africa in 2008, almost double the number of the year before. The bureau has recorded at least 84 attacks in the first quarter of 2009.

About 300 non-U.S. crew members remain in Somali captivity aboard 18 hijacked vessels, according to the Senate panel.

The problem requires a complex regional response between the United States and other powers such as China, India and Russia, Ambassador Stephen Mull told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said U.S. officials are working with other countries to deny pirates whatever they might gain from taking ships and crews.

“We will continue to press the importance of a ‘no concessions’ policy when dealing with pirates,” Mull said.

Phillips’ firsthand experience aside, there’s little consensus among policymakers and maritime experts on the wisdom of arming merchant seamen.

The chairman of Phillips’ own company told the Senate panel that doing so could make the seas even more dangerous.

“Arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of ever more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, a race that merchant sailors cannot win,” Maersk Inc. Chairman John P. Clancey said in his prepared remarks.

Witnesses said the solution will require a combination of diplomacy and cooperation between governments, shippers and seamen’s unions.

Government protection for ships in vast international waters was already in progress.

Belgium said Thursday that its military will provide onboard protection to commercial ships off the Horn of Africa, beginning this weekend. Teams of eight soldiers will be available to Belgian ships upon request if an EU anti-piracy flotilla in the region can’t guarantee protection. The costs will be assumed by ship owners.

Phillips, 53, was taken hostage April 8 after four Somali pirates assaulted his ship, the Maersk Alabama. He was rescued April 12. He has described the siege in interviews, but told the Senate panel he would not talk about the details because of an ongoing investigation and legal proceedings against one of the pirates who held him hostage.

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