A spate of attacks on ships off Somalia and the rescue Sunday of an American captain held hostage by pirates have reinvigorated a long-simmering debate over whether the crews of commercial vessels should be armed.
While the arming of merchant vessels was commonplace for centuries, it faded in recent decades because of ship owners’ concerns about liability and the safety of their sailors.
Despite repeated problems with pirates in the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia and now in the waters of the Arabian Sea, ship owners worried that their crews would be killed instead of held for ransom if the crews tried to defend themselves and failed.
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But the expanding range and seafaring skills of Somali pirates are prompting some experts to start calling for changes. The killing by United States Navy sharpshooters of three Somali pirates during the rescue on Sunday of Richard Phillips, the American captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama, has further raised the stakes, with at least one Somali pirate on shore threatening vengeance on the next American seafarer captured.
Barry Parker, a shipping consultant in New York and former ship broker, predicted that an international agreement would be drafted to allow captains to keep firearms and distribute them to crew members during times of potential danger from pirates. International rules pushed through by the United States after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, authorized captains to monitor maritime security in their vicinity and maintain their vessels at elevated levels of vigilance in response to dangers.