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The United States Wednesday welcomed the repulsion of a band of pirates by gunfire from a private security team on a ship off the northeastern coast of Somalia.  

Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman said the department is pleased with the success of the team on board the Maersk Alabama, the same ship that was hijacked in April, when it did not have a security team onboard.  In that incident, pirates held the ship's captain hostage until an elite unit of U.S. military snipers freed him.

Also on Wednesday, the commander of U.S. and coalition Navy forces in the region, Vice Admiral William Gortney, welcomed the actions of the ship's security team.

"We think this is a good thing.  We clearly think that if you value your cargo, you need that last line of defense," he said.

Admiral Gortney believes this is the first time a private security team has repulsed a pirate attack in the region.

During a visit to Washington, the admiral told reporters he credits the Maersk company for protecting its cargo and crew members by following a list of "Best Practices" developed by the Navy and the shipping industry.  He says that involves protecting commercial shipping in pirate-infested waters off Somalia with a combination of passive steps, such as installing barbed wire, and also more aggressive steps, such as using water canon, devices that produce loud noises and putting armed teams on the ships.  He acknowledges that last recommendation is controversial.

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"Any time that you exchange gunfire the probability of violence escalating is always there.  When we received the authorities that gave us the judicial finish, where we can arrest them and take them to, say, Kenya, we were concerned that might raise the level of violence," he said.  "That didn't occur.  However, this is another incident that could raise the level of violence.  But we'll see how it progresses," he said.

The admiral says he recommends the use of lethal force when necessary to stop pirates, and in this instance he says warning shots and a loud blast from a Long Range Acoustic Device were not effective.  He says 90 per cent of the successful hijackings in recent months have been of ships that were not following the recommended "Best Practices" for security.

U.S. officials frequently say the long-term solution to the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia is to solve the economic and law enforcement problems in the country.  Until that happens, Admiral Gortney says, it is up to the U.S. and allied navies, and the shipping lines themselves.  And he says because the area is so vast each ship must be prepared to protect itself.  

Admiral Gortney says an agreement a year ago to prosecute captured pirates is starting to work, but he says it has not yet had much deterrent effect inside Somalia.

"The judicial line, I don't think has had that effect ashore.  I'm not disappointed with the effect.  I just don't think it has had time to take effect yet," he said.

The admiral reports that so far 257 alleged pirates have been referred for prosecution, but only 46 have been convicted and sent to prison.