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Oct 28, 2010 | 12:12 GMT

New Tactic for Countering Somali Pirates

Vessels in Martigues
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images
Somali pirates boarded the Maido, a French-flagged liquefied petroleum gas carrier, approximately 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of Tanzania on Oct. 26 in an attempt to hijack the ship. However, before the pirates could gain control of the vessel, the 14 crew members retreated to a safe room from which they shut down the ship's navigational systems and sent out a distress call. Unable to maneuver the ship back to shore or take any hostages, the pirates abandoned the hijacking and the Maido quickly resumed its course. Security concerns over piracy off the eastern coast of Africa have triggered an international naval response that has resulted in limited success. Shipping companies and crews also have pursued a number of tactics to avoid paying the ransoms that come with losing a ship to piracy; some ships have deployed fire hoses, fencing around the deck perimeter and even armed guards to physically repel pirate attacks. However, the Oct. 26 incident is an example of an increasingly popular tactic in which, instead of attempting to keep pirates off the ship, protocols aim to prevent pirates from gaining control over the ship or taking hostages. The strategy involves a prepared plan for sequestering the crew in a safe room containing supplies like food and water; a kill-switch that remotely disables the ship's engine, electronic systems and fuel supplies; and communications equipment that can be used to send out distress signals. If the lack of navigational ability or hostages alone does not encourage the pirates to desert the ship, the crew's isolation also buys time for naval forces or anti-piracy patrols to respond. These safe rooms have been used with increasing frequency, allowing British Royal Marines to recapture a German cargo ship from pirates Oct. 24 and U.S. Marines to retake the MV Magellan Star in the Gulf of Aden on Sept. 9. In other, previous cases in which the targeted ships' crews were able to sequester themselves, a Russian naval infantry unit recaptured a Russian-owned oil tanker from Somali pirates in May, and Dutch Marines retook a German container ship in April. In the most similar case to the Oct. 26 incident, hijackers abandoned a Greek ship on Sept. 28 without a foreign naval presence even interceding. While this tactic currently is proving successful, it is only effective as long as the pirates desist from harming the crew or badly damaging the ship. In the Oct. 24 case, the pirates fled as soon as the marines boarded but not before setting fire to part of the ship's superstructure. If pirates escalate their aggression against the crew, the safe-room tactic could backfire. As tactics and countertactics continue to evolve, pirates will try to find methods to overcome the tactical advantage presented by crew sequestration.
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