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U.S. Navy, Coast Guard on Lookout for Piracy

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2006 – Pirates are not a thing of the past. They are alive and well, and roaming the seas in search of booty. And U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officials are determined to stop them from threatening Americans and American interests.

When average Americans think of pirates, they probably conjure up an image of a snarling, rum-drinking, eye-patch wearing, 18th century drunkard with a parrot perched on his shoulder. This perception is in need of an update.

Following a century of decline, piracy is increasingly on the rise.

"Although piracy has existed almost as long as shipping and trade, it appeared to have been eliminated by the end of the 19th century. But piracy had not disappeared. During the 1970s and 1980s, attacks on merchant ships began to increase, and piracy became a problem that could no longer be ignored," an official from the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations, said.

Incidents of piracy have become even more prevalent over the last two years, especially off the coast of Somalia and in the South China Sea.

In 2004, 330 incidents of piracy were recorded worldwide, of which almost 180 took place in the South China Sea, but "the actual extent of the incidents is very difficult to gauge and there may have been other unreported cases," IMO officials stated.

"The number of reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in waters off the coast of Somalia has increased alarmingly ... and is becoming increasingly common," an official said. "Most of the incidents have reportedly occurred at distances ranging up to 180 nautical miles off the Somali coast, and the reported information suggests a pattern of well-organized and coordinated activities."

The U.S. Navy is attacking the issue head-on. In an attempt to make the seas safer for commerce and to thwart terrorist activities, the Navy conducts maritime security operations in various parts of the world, officials said.

"The primary focus of (such operations) is preventing terrorists from using the seas as a venue from which to launch an attack or to move people, weapons or other material that support their efforts," Naval Forces Central Command spokesman Cmdr. Jeff Breslau said. But "our maritime task forces are always prepared to respond to mariners in distress, whether they are under attack by pirates, experience engineering causalities, or have medical emergencies."

Most recently, the Navy captured a suspected pirate vessel in the Indian Ocean about 54 miles off the coast of Somalia and detained 10 alleged pirates Jan. 21.

Several other incidents of piracy aimed at international shipping off the Somali coast have been reported over the past year, including an attack on a Western cruise ship in November and a Jan. 22 incident in which pirates reportedly fired on a commercial cargo ship before hijacking the vessel. The pirates are currently demanding ransom for the release of the 20 crewmembers and the vessel, International Maritime Bureau officials said.

Pirates have even hijacked humanitarian aid vessels, such as a ship loaded with foodstuff headed to Somalia under the auspices of the U.N. World Food Program, IMO officials said.

"In today's world, ship safety and security are inseparable. Events have made us all aware of the vulnerability of transport networks and the potential they hold to be either the targets or the instruments of terror." IMO officials said.

Even though acts of piracy are not common in American waters, the U.S. Coast Guard is vigilant in preventing them from becoming so. Aside from combating drug trafficking and protecting U.S. ports and marine transportation system from terrorism, Coast Guard officials emphasize the importance of stopping the spread of piracy into American waters to protect U.S. citizens and the flow of commerce.

"By its very definition, piracy is about stealing. Our job is law enforcement," Dan Tremper, a Coast Guard spokesman, said. "We're always on patrol -- 24/7. We've got sharp eyes on the water with the goal of protecting the American people and our economic interests."

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