Friday, April 17, 2009

High seas pirate ‘war’ demands toughest world response

As maritime commerce grew, an early universal jurisdiction law adopted by new nations was to brand piracy a criminal act. In fact, admiralty law had an especially raw name for pirates—hostis humani generis, "enemy of all mankind."

That colorful sobriquet applies nicely to rogues darting out from the 2,500-mile Somalia coastline these days to prey on international shipping as it passes from the Suez Canal and Red Sea into the Gulf of Eden and the Indian Ocean.

This may surprise many: The 111 piracy incidents (and 60 ship seizures) in that area last year was the highest number in 200 years, netting millions of dollars in ransom to Somali pirates. These brazen seizures are pulled off largely by young, uneducated thugs from a nation in utter despair and collapse, armed with little more than automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Picture this outrageous example: A handful of pirates seized and held hostage for months the Saudi Arabian supertanker Sirius Star, its 2 million barrels of oil and 25-man crew until a $3 million ransom was paid.

Although a succession of resolutions by the United Nations and maritime countries has cleared the way to forcibly subdue piracy, either means and methods or overcautious insurance companies and ship owners have slowed any response. President Obama's order to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips and kill his captors was a rare action in this war.

Action must now be taken quickly and with conclusive results, lest other nests of brigands are bred.

Absent ship owners arming their crews or outfitting vessels with professional gun crews, one immediate solution would be to create an international exclusion in shipping lanes off the Somali coast in international waters. Any vessels entering the area from Somalia, and clearly not on some benign mission such as fishing, would be subject to immediate military action such as seizure or attack by warships patrolling the area.

Furthermore, the United States could divert from the Iraq theater one or two of the new Q-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft to patrol skies for pirate vessels. The Reaper, with a 66-foot wingspan twice as large as an F-16 jet fighter, can loiter at altitudes as high as 50,000 feet for 14 hours at a stretch. With laser-guided bombs and terrifying Hellfire and Stinger missiles, Reapers could surgically destroy any pirate vessel before it could approach a freighter.

Taking out these sea-borne terrorists is an immediate must to keep world seas free. Surely, punks in leaky skiffs can't be allowed to paralyze international trade.

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