Somali pirates attack US-flagged ship, vessel evades capture

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged container ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates seven months ago, was attacked off the coast of Somalia. The pirates, however, could not capture the vessel.

The Maersk Alabama
Image: Laura A. Moore.

The US Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, reported that four pirates riding in a fast skiff came within 270 meters of the container ship. The Maersk Alabama was about 965 kilometers off the northeast coast of Somalia and was steaming toward the Kenyan port city of Mombasa when it came under attack.

The Navy said the crew of Maersk Alabama undertook evasive maneuvers and deployed long-range acoustical devices, which make noise painful to the human ear. The crew also responded with small-arms fire after pirates fired automatic weapons at the ship. The pirates abandoned the attack without causing injuries or damage to the vessel.

We have attacked a ship with an American flag...

—Abdullahi Nor

Abdullahi Nor, who said he was a spokesman for the pirates, commented on the incident. "We have attacked a ship with an American flag — we tried to throw our ladders for climbing [but] it sped and [has] gone away. It narrowly escaped and opened fire on us. One of our colleagues was injured in the attack." Nor claimed to have communicated with the ship's attackers via satellite telephone.

US Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, from the Naval Forces Central Command, issued a statement in which he praised Maersk Alabama's owner and crew for following maritime industry's best practices, including having a security team on board to help prevent a hijacking.

"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. This is a great example of how merchant mariners can take pro-active action to prevent being attacked," he remarked.

In April, the 155-meter vessel made international headlines when it was seized by pirates who held captain Richard Phillips hostage at gunpoint for five days in a lifeboat. He was freed by US commandos who killed three of the pirates.

A spokesman for the European Naval Force described the second attempted hijacking of the Maersk Alabama as "pure chance."

Wednesday's attack came soon after a report released by the United Nations, which said the presence of international warships off the coast of Somalia, as well as improved efforts by ships to protect themselves, have considerably reduced the number of successful hijackings in the region this year, especially in the Gulf of Aden.

But the report, submitted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, noted that intensified anti-piracy activity in the Gulf of Aden is also forcing pirates to hunt for targets in the Indian Ocean, closer to the island nation of the Seychelles.

Since the beginning of October, seven of the eight vessels seized by pirates have been in the vicinity of the Seychelles. Recently, the government began allowing the US Navy to use the airport in the capital Mahe to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles to combat piracy. The Seychelles also signed an agreement last week to allow European warships and military personnel to pursue pirates from the high seas into Seychellian waters and to use necessary force.