Maersk Alabama repels second pirate attack
Stars and Stripes November 19, 2009
The Maersk Alabama, which was at the center of a standoff between the U.S. military and Somali pirates earlier this spring, was attacked again by pirates Wednesday.
This time, however, a security team embarked on the cargo ship foiled the attack.
Four pirates in a skiff came within 300 yards of the U.S.-flagged merchant ship, using small-arms weapons in an attempt to board the ship, according to a U.S. Naval Forces Central Command statement.
The ship responded with evasive maneuvers and small-arms fire, as well as long-range acoustic devices, to drive the pirates away. The devices are high-powered bullhorns of sorts that emit an ear-piercing noise or can be used to issue verbal warnings.
“The private security team followed the rules of engagement in terms of warning the pirates,” said Kevin Speers, spokesman for the U.S.-based Maersk Line Limited. “They used the long-range communication, telling the pirates to stay away from the ship. They fired warning shots further informing them to stay away from the ship, and the security team responded with gunfire once they were fired upon.”
The use of lethal force on the part of the merchant vessels causes officials to worry about a potential escalation of violence, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said Wednesday.
“Anytime you exchange gunfire, the probability of an escalation of violence is there,” he said.
Wednesday was the first time an embarked contract security team on a merchant vessel repelled a pirate attempt, he said.
The private security team and the acoustic devices are new additions to the Maersk Alabama following the attack on the ship seven months ago, Speers said.
The Maersk Alabama was sailing about 644 miles off the northeast coast of Somalia when the attack occurred. Following the pirates’ failed attempt, the ship continued toward its destination of Mombasa, Kenya, the Navy said.
No injuries or damage were reported aboard the cargo ship.
On April 8, pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama, taking the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, and holding him for five days on a small skiff.
U.S. Navy SEAL snipers perched on the back of the USS Bainbridge shot and killed three of the suspected pirates and took a fourth into custody during Phillips’ rescue. The survivor, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was ferried to the U.S. for judicial proceedings and in April was indicted in the Southern District of New York.
This time, the ship was better prepared.
“Due to Maersk-Alabama following maritime industry’s best practices such as embarking security teams, the ship was able to prevent being successfully attacked by pirates,” Gortney said in the statement. “This is a great example of how merchant mariners can take pro-active action to prevent being attacked and why we recommend that ships follow industry best practices if they’re in high-risk areas.”
Speers would not say whether any of the 20 U.S. citizen crewmembers involved in Wednesday’s incident had also been aboard the vessel in April. He said Phillips was not onboard.
Cmdr. John Harbour, a spokesman for the EU Naval Force, called it “pure chance” that the Maersk Alabama had been targeted a second time.
“It’s not the first vessel to have been attacked twice, and it’s a chance that every single ship takes as it passes through the area,” Harbour said. “At least this time they had a vessel protection detachment on board who were able to repel the attack.”
An EU patrol aircraft from the Horn of Africa nation Djibouti was called in to investigate, and the closest EU Naval Force vessel was tasked with searching for the pirate attack group, the EU Naval Force said in a statement.
Several contributing factors have led to a slight decrease in the number of successful pirate attacks in the Somali basin, Gortney said, from merchant vessels using defensive measures to the increased use of U.S. and coalition military ships. There were 15 incidents this time last year, compared to the 11 incidents this year, he said.
“In 90 percent of the successful attacks, the ships were not performing our best practices, … which can be as simple as posting a lookout,” he said. Other measures include using barbed wire, slippery foam or water cannons.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.