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April 14, 2009

As pirate attacks continue, Pentagon ponders options

Somali pirates continue to add ships and hostages to their tally. Following Sunday's dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, the attacks are receiving intense media attention--and helping fuel demands for stepped up U.S. action against the pirates.

In the most recent incidents, the St. Vincent and Grenadines flag, Greek-managed MV Irene E.M. was hijacked in a night attack, within three minutes of sending a distress call to the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg, some 88 km from it. The frigate dispatched a helicopter, but by the time it arrived the MV Irene EM was already under pirate control.

The 1980-built, 21,947 gt bulker was en route from the Mid East to South Asia. The Equasis data base shows the ship manager as Chian Spirit Maritime Enterprises, Inc. and the registered owner as Venetico Marine. The ship reportedly has an all-Filipino crew of 22.

This is not the first time Irene E,M, has been in the news. In 2007 Chian Spirit and Venetico pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Delaware and paid a combined penalty of $1.25 million in relation to a 2005 "magic pipe" and false oil record book entry case involving the ship.

Within hours of the capture of the Irene E.M., the Togo-flagged MV Sea Horse, a 4,932 gt general cargo ship managed by Sealink SARL of Lebanon, was reported hijacked.

Yesterday, two Egyptian fishing vessels were grabbed in the Gulf of Aden and their crews of between 18 and 24 Egyptian citizens are now hostages.

Rep. Ike Skelton, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is among those who have called for action that could include raids on pirate shore bases.

Yesterday, speaking at the at the Marine Corps War College, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that despite the success of Sunday's rescue, "the question of how to deal with the broader issue of piracy still looms large."

"Is there a way to deal with this in a systemic way that reduces the risk and brings the international community together in a productive way to deal with the problem?" Gates said. "I think we're going to end up spending a fair amount of time on this in the administration, seeing if there is a way to try and mitigate this problem of piracy."

Gates said the historical case of Southeast Asia's solution to its piracy problem does not generally apply to the current Somali-based issue. "The problem is easier to deal with when the surrounding land -- as in the case of Southeast Asia and the Straits of Malacca -- is controlled by real governments that have real capabilities, which is not the case in Somalia," he explained. "So it is a serious international problem, and it's probably going to get worse."

Gates, emphasizing the limitations of a purely military approach, said some have suggested bypassing the central government of Somalia and instead establishing relationships with officials of functioning local governments there.

"There is no purely military solution to it," he said. "And as long as you've got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there's really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids."

Gates noted the four pirates involved in kidnapping the Maersk Alabama captain were 17 to 19 years old, and he cited the dangerous combination of untrained youth and arms.

"Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons," he told the group of 30 students and faculty members. "Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that."

Gates underscored that the piracy issue will likely be an important agenda item in coming weeks.

"All I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the situation room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem," he said.

Today, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military has initiated a review to look "broadly and widely and deeply" at the overall strategy on piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," Admiral Mullen noted that pirates have vowed reprisals on the United States for the successful operation to free Phillips.

"I certainly take their comments afterwards seriously," Mullen said. "That said, we are very well prepared to deal with anything like that. And that will be part of our military review."

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