JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The Maersk Alabama was ready this time.
On Wednesday, when a speedboat full of armed pirates launched an attack some 350 miles east of the Somali coast, the Maersk Alabama's armed guards repelled the attack.
While successful, the defense of the Maersk Alabama - a U.S.-flagged cargo ship made famous in April for the rescue by U.S. Navy Seals - raises anew the debate about whether merchant ships should follow its example and hire armed guards when traveling through the ever-expanding territory of Somali pirates.
"There is a major danger of escalation if merchant ships have armed guards," says Roger Middleton, an expert on Somalia and the Horn of Africa for Chatham House, the London thinktank. "If pirates approach an unarmed ship, they might shoot to scare. But if they approach a ship and that ship fires back on them, they will shoot to kill."
Somali pirate attacks have been on the upswing for more than a month now that the monsoon storm season in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea has ended. Just this week, pirates have attacked and boarded a North Korean-flagged freighter, and pirates released a Spanish fishing trawler after payment of a reported $3.3 million.
Piracy has been a major problem along the Somali coast for nearly 20 years, since the fall of that country's last functioning government in 1991 and its descent into anarchy. But as ransoms became more profitable, pirates have gotten more sophisticated, using mother ships and global positioning devices to venture as far as the Seychelles Islands to carry out their attacks.
While armed guards on merchant ships may seem a good solution to some, it is frowned upon by most marine security experts. The International Maritime Organization - a commercial shipping organization that tracks piracy - has suggested that ships hire unarmed guards to provide security advice to captains on evasive measures, but it warns that armed guards can do more harm than good.
Some ship owners have also resisted putting armed guards on ships, arguing that pirates will always be better armed and are likely to continue using their weapons on board, increasing the likelihood that crew members will be injured or killed.
In most cases, pirates leave the crew members of hijacked ships unharmed, experts on Somali piracy say, but their tactics could become more brutal if commercial ships start fighting back.
"For the past 200 years, states have been providing security on the seas, and security is better when states do it than when private companies do it," says Mr. Middleton, who adds that a privatization of security on the seas would be a "step backward." "If the British Navy is patrolling an area, they are accountable under British law for their actions. If a private security company is on patrol, there is no guarantee that they will be accountable to anybody."
That said, a European Union Naval Force spokesman credited the presence of armed guards for preventing the pirates from taking control of the Maersk Alabama. "At least this time they had a vessel protection detachment on board who were able to repel the attack," Capt. John Harbour told the Associated Press.
A global naval task force of more than a dozen vessels, including ships from the European Union, the U.S., Russia, China, and India, is currently patrolling the area. The EU mission's primary role is to escort cargo ships carrying food aid to Africa.
The Maersk Alabama is not the first commercial ship to use armed guards to repel pirate attacks. The Italian-flagged MSC Melody - a cruise ship with 1,500 passengers en route from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy - repelled a pirate attack in April 180 miles north of the Seychelles. A skiff with six -- apparently Somali -- pirates fired some 200 rounds at the Melody. A team of Israeli armed guards fired into the air, while crewmembers used fire hoses against the pirates attempting to climb aboard the ship.
Shipping past the Somali coast, through the Gulf of Aden, and onward to the Suez Canal may have its risks, but the attack on the Maersk Alabama shows that the route is too important for companies to avoid altogether.
In 2006, nearly 3.3 million barrels of oil per day (nearly 10 percent of all oil transported by ship) passed through the Gulf of Aden, through the Suez Canal, and onward to Europe and the United States. The alternate route, around the southern tip of Africa, adds some 6,000 miles to the trip.