WASHINGTON – Even in the glow of the U.S. Navy’s daring rescue of a cargo ship captain from Somali pirates, the military is still searching for a solution to the epidemic of high seas piracy.
The Navy’s effort to coordinate with other international warships and the shipping industry to crack down on cargo vessel seizures has done little to deter the onslaught of multimillion-dollar ship ransoms, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said Sunday.
Pirates have merely headed elsewhere to avoid the growing armada arrayed against them, Gortney said from Bahrain during a press conference detailing the operation that freed Capt. Richard Phillips and left three pirates slain and one in American custody.
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.
The latest example of the military’s handling of the Somali pirate problem was the most dramatic. It ended Sunday with the rescue of 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 who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The pirates had tied up Phillips and were pointing an AK-47 assault rifle at him, Gortney said.
Acting on authorization from the White House to take action 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.”
President Barack Obama received updates around the clock, met with senior aides and pushed his staff to consider everything as the White House confronted one of its first international crises. After the Navy ended the standoff, Obama made his first comments on the matter after more than five days of silence.
“We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region. To achieve that goal, we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes,” Obama said in a statement released Sunday.
The Justice Department was considering whether to prosecute the surviving pirate in Washington or New York, two U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life sentences under U.S. law.
More than 100 ships off the Horn of Africa have been assaulted over the past year by pirates based on the coast of Somalia.
The Navy began focusing on the Gulf of Aden and seeing results, Gortney said, but as soon as ship seizures there began to lessen, 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 pirates boarded before the crew fought back.
Additional Navy ships have been sent to the region to patrol for pirates, Gortney said.