It’s been troubling to watch US warships “monitor” the status of foreign flagged vessels seized by Somali pirates and brought within territorial waters, where they are, theoretically at least, subject to local law enforcement rather than high seas piracy suppression. Theoretically, because Somalia has no functioning government or security services with which to prosecute the law enforcement issue.
But now the pirates have seized a US-flagged merchant ship, which ought to make things a good deal simpler:
A U.S.-flagged cargo ship that routinely works under contract to the Department of Defense and its all-American crew were hijacked today by pirates operating off the Horn of Africa.
The crew of 20 is believed to be safe and the vessel is heading toward the coast of Somalia, maritime officials said.The early-morning attack of the Danish-owned cargo ship occurred about 240 nautical miles southeast of the Somali port city of Eyl in the Indian Ocean, according to U.S. naval officials.
The ship’s owner, Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line Ltd., a subsidiary of Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk, is a longtime Defense Department shipping contractor, operating at times with top security clearance.
But the hijacked vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was not sailing under a Defense Department contract at the time of the attack, according to Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman from the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
A Maersk spokeswoman in Copenhagen said the ship was carrying food and “relief aid,” but she did not know the final destination of the cargo.
The attack marks a rare hijacking of a U.S.-operated ship in Africa, where piracy has been surging along Somalia’s coast and in the Gulf of Aden.
“Every indication is that this is the first time a U.S.-flagged ship has been successfully seized by pirates,” Christensen said.
It’s quite possible that I’ve misremembered my law of the sea, but I seem to recall that the US reserves an inherent right and obligation to lend assistance to US-flagged vessels and their mariners unlawfully seized, regardless of their inshore or at sea status.
I guess we’ll soon see.
For broader piracy coverage, please see Eagle Speak, who has been all over this issue from start, and has the added advantages of being both a naval officer and a lawyer. Versus a knuckle-dragging strike fighter guy who just wants the coordinates of stuff that ought to be blown up.
Update: Putting the “marine” back in “merchant marines“:
A Defense Department official said the American crew was back in charge of a hijacked cargo ship off the coast of Somalia and had one pirate detained.
The fate of the other pirates who had been reported to have been on the ship was not known, the official said.
Probably trying to pass his swim qual.