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Somali Pirates Take Captain Of U.S. Ship Hostage

The "Maersk Alabama" container ship, whose captain was kidnapped.
(RFE/RL) -- The "Maersk Alabama" was heading to the Kenyan port of Mombasa with a cargo of food aid for Somalia and Uganda.

These are known to be dangerous waters -- the "Alabama’s" second-in-command, Shane Murphy, told his wife pirates had followed the ship on April 6. Then, early on April 8, the pirates made their move.

Murphy’s father, Joseph, told reporters that the pirates came up from the stern in the dark, and there were two pirate boats.

What happened next is not entirely clear. Apparently Captain Richard Phillips gave himself up to the pirates in return for his crew’s safety. The pirates then left in a lifeboat with their hostage.

However it happened, the crew is now back in control of the 17,000-ton ship.

Maersk shipping company spokesman Kevin Speers said he was encouraged that the sailors were safe, and that he believed the captain was unharmed.

"The safe return of the captain is our foremost priority," Speers told reporters. "Everything we've done over the past day has strived to increase the chance of a peaceful outcome."

Good Business

The attack was audacious -- the first on U.S. sailors in some 200 years.

But it’s the latest in an escalation of pirate attacks in the waters off the coast of Somalia. Attacks in the area increased nearly 200 percent last year, with hundreds of sailors held hostage and millions of dollars paid in ransom.

For business-savvy pirates, the rewards far outweigh the risks, says Ian Taylor, editor of "Cargo Security International."

"There isn’t a great deal of punitive action happening but the rewards of successfully catching a ship and holding a crew to ransom are large," Taylor says.

"There have been high ransoms paid, there’s a general feeling [it’s] a successful business."

What’s lucrative for the pirates is costing the international shipping business dearly.

Insurance costs have risen and Taylor says many companies are now trying to avoid the most dangerous waters by sailing around South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the government is "deeply concerned" and is following the "Alabama" seizure closely. "More generally we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy," she added.

But that’s easier said than done.

Addressing The Cause

Several attacks have been foiled by the international patrols in the Gulf of Aden that involve warships from nations including the United States, Russia, and China.

But the area is vast, and the patrols cannot be everywhere.

The signs are that the pirates are moving further out to sea to avoid detection -- the "Alabama" was attacked hundreds of kilometers off the coast.

What ships can do is take antipiracy precautions, like evasive maneuvers. They can use powerful water hoses on attackers, or erect barbed wire.

What to do with captured pirates is another problem. France and the Netherlands have brought suspects home to face trial but there are legal questions over where and how to prosecute.

But experts say the key to combating piracy lies not on the high seas, but on the ground. Taylor notes that Somalia hasn’t "had a proper government for a long time, the country is ruled by warlords, it’s the Wild West moved to the east coast of Africa. So really you have to address those issues first. If you’re looking for a long-term solution you have to look for some way to establish the rule of law in Somalia itself."

Somalia has been ravaged by decades of civil war and without an effective government since 1991.

True, the country now has a new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, at the head of what is meant to be a unity government. Ahmed is a former leading figure in the Islamic Courts Union, a group Washington previously accused of harboring Al-Qaeda-linked militants,

Now he is seen as a moderate, and hard-line Islamic insurgent groups such as Al-Shabab have vowed to continue their insurgency in a bid to take over the country.

Faced with challenges like that, a Somali solution to the problem of piracy seems a distant prospect