Richard Phillips, the cargo-ship captain whose capture by pirates triggered a dramatic U.S. Navy rescue off the coast of Africa, called on the federal government Thursday to provide military escorts for international shipping vessels.
Testifying before a key Senate committee, Phillips conceded there may not be sufficient resources to do that. He also said arming vessels’ crews could deter pirates, but should only be allowed in limited circumstances. Phillips was in command of the Maersk Alabama when it was boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia on April 8. Phillips said the optimum situation for cargo vessels would be to have military escorts. He said he realizes there is a limit to government resources that can be deployed in the vast area off the Somali coast and the Horn of Africa. See map of attacks » Phillips told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he would not be opposed to having private security forces on a vessel, but “very clear protocols would have to be established and followed. … In the heat of an attack, there can be only one final decision-maker.” Phillips said that, in his opinion, arming a ship’s crew “cannot and should not be viewed as the best or ultimate solution to the problem. … To the extent we go forward in this direction, it would be my personal preference that only a limited number of individuals aboard the vessel should have access to weapons, and they should be specially trained.”
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He warned that “even this limited approach to arming the crews opens up a very thorny set of issues. … We all must understand that having weapons aboard a merchant marine ship fundamentally changes the model of commercial shipping and we must be very cautious about how it is done.” When the Maersk Alabama was seized, Phillips, 53, offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the safety of his crew. He tried to escape the next day, jumping into the ocean in an effort to reach a nearby U.S. Navy ship. He was rescued April 12 when Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three pirates holding him captive on a lifeboat. John Clancy, the head of Maersk Line Ltd., said arming sailors could potentially worsen the current situation off the African coast. “Arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of even more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates in a race that merchant sailors cannot win,” Clancy told the committee. “In addition, most ports of call will not permit the introduction of firearms into the national waters,” he noted. Clancy said the solution to piracy must ultimately be an international one. He pointed out that most of the vessels that face a piracy threat do not fly the U.S. flag. He also noted that most of the naval vessels assigned to counter piracy off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden are not from the United States. Somali pirate attacks in and around the heavily traveled Gulf of Aden have risen dramatically in the past few years. Pirates have been able to successfully demand ransoms for millions of dollars from shipping companies — for whom it makes business sense to pay in order to free their crews and many millions of dollars more worth of cargo. The attack on the Alabama was the first successful attack on a U.S.-flagged ship during that time. “The renewed threat of piracy demands a multifaceted, multinational effort, one that coordinates the world’s naval powers, the United Nations, the international shipping community, and the nations that border Somalia,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, at the start of the committee’s hearing. “International law is clear in its condemnation of piracy. This is an opportunity for all nations to come together and work in order to effectively respond.” Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the committee, stated that the “root cause of this problem is the breakdown of law and order in Somalia, which is what allows the pirates to operate from shore with impunity.” Lugar warned that “the existence of failed states directly threatens the national security interests of the United States.” Meanwhile, the bodies of the three pirates killed by the Navy SEALs were turned over to Somali authorities Thursday, according to a U.S. defense official with knowledge of the matter but not authorized to speak about it.
The bodies were being held on the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer until the U.S. State Department could arrange a transfer. The official said the bodies were turned over to police authorities from Puntland, a self-declared autonomous state in northern Somalia. Two police boats from the Puntland town of Bosasso met the Boxer to receive the bodies, the official said. It was unclear if the bodies will be returned to family members.