U.S. congressional committees have examined the problem of maritime piracy and steps the U.S. and other countries are taking to deal with it. Captain Richard Phillips, who was held for five days by pirates off the coast of Somalia, testified before a Senate panel, while U.S. officials appeared before a House committee.
In response to the sharp increase in pirate attacks in major shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, the United States, European Union, and other governments have stepped up counter-piracy operations in the area.
An international contact group was formed earlier this year. The U.S. Central Command set up a special anti-piracy task force, assisted by the U.S. Coast Guard.
So far this year, Ambassador Stephen Mull, Senior Adviser to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said there have been 15 interdictions of pirate vessels, nearly double the total from 2008, with 52 pirates apprehended.
Mull says the international contact group, which will hold an emergency session in coming weeks, is working to build a permanent security approach:
"We want to protect America's right, and the world's right, to freedom of the seas through enhanced international cooperation in stopping these pirate attacks and building a lasting maritime security regime that we think will serve all of our interests in the end," said Stephen Mull.
Arming merchant vessels, either through private security firms or providing crews with weapons, was a key topic in House and Senate hearings.
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher asked this question:
"Couldn't these people be deterred by just having private security guards on the ships or having someone hired by the shipping companies to keep a protective cover in that part of the world?," asked Dana Rohrabacher.
While some shipping companies are using this approach, Coast Guard Rear Admiral William D. Baumgartner said the issue is not simple, involving questions of proper training, effective techniques, cargo safety and insurance issues:
"There are many nations and many interests that think this raises the danger to the crews and to the vessel and will take this whole thing to a different level," said Admiral Baumgartner.
Captain Richard Phillips, held by four pirates who assaulted his ship the Maersk Alabama, and later freed after U.S. Navy sharpshooters killed three, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Phillips favors further hardening of merchant vessels, enhanced training for crews, and U.S. military protection, to the extent possible, for U.S. flag vessels.
He says putting weapons aboard vessels would fundamentally change the model of commercial shipping and urges that this be seen as only one part of a broader strategy:
"At most, arming the crew should be only one component of a comprehensive plan and approach to combat piracy," said Captain Phillips. "To the extend that we go forward in this direction it would be my personal preference that only a limited number of individuals aboard the vessel have access to effective weaponry, that these individuals receive special training on a regular basis."
John Clancey, chairman of Maersk, Inc. told lawmakers that arming the crews of merchant ships could inject even more danger:
"Our belief is that arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of even more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, and a race that merchant sailors cannot win," said John Clancey. "In addition, most ports of call will not permit the introduction of firearms into their national waters."
Ambassador Mull told lawmakers no links have been identified so far between Somali pirates and Islamic or known terrorist groups, but said officials are closely watching to see if any emerge.
Democratic Senator John Kerry,Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Comittee and Republican Richard Lugar both stressed that lawlessness in Somalia is at the core of the problem:
KERRY: "Thriving on chaos and ungoverned spaces, perpetrated by small groups of non-state actors, international piracy combines several of the great security challenges of our age."
LUGAR: "The existence of failed states directly threatens the national security interest of the United States. Failed states exist as potential safe havens for terrorism, drugs and arms trafficking, and piracy."
Donald Payne, chairman of the House Africa Subcommittee, said profit and criminal cartels, not ideology, drive piracy in Somalia.
Payne, who recently met with leaders of Somalia's Transitional Government in Mogadishu, believes none of the groups in Somalia's fractured political picture formally support piracy:
"The leadership of Puntland, Somaliland, [and the transitional federal government in] Somalia really want to see this end, because it does absolutely nothing for the country which is in terrible straits in the first place," said Donald Payne. "Somalia has been abandoned for 15 years and they are certainly not going to get anybody investing in Somalia with these gangsters doing what they are doing."
The bodies of the three pirates killed by U.S. Navy SEAL special forces were returned to authorities in Somalia on Thursday. The surviving pirate is in the U.S. facing prosecution.
Under special agreements, the United States, European nations and other governments have turned over captured pirates to Kenya for trial.
Somalia's foreign ministry on Thursday said pirates captured off the Somali coast should be returned there to face trial.