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Revealed: Cruise ships sail in pirate waters



U.S. shipping interests, scolded Tuesday by a State Department official for not doing enough to fight Somali pirates, flashed back that they need more Navy protection and must pay ransom demands or nobody will man ships.

At a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum on the surge in piracy off the Somali coast where 30,000 ships a year pass, the former head of the Pentagon’s Piracy Task Force 151 also chided the top State anti-piracy official for not knowing that cruise ships commonly pass through.

Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, said cruise ships don’t steer near the open waters off Africa’s coast because of the pirate threat. “For the most part, they are not transiting through high-risk areas,” he said, adding that none have been targeted by pirates. But retired Rear Adm. Terence McKnight, the former Task Force 151 boss, said the Queen Mary and many others sail the dangerous waters. “There have been a lot of cruise lines through there,” he said.

McKnight, concerned about proposed Navy budget cuts, also warned against reducing American and international warships patrolling the pirate basin. Without the ships, he said, “pirates will become more aggressive.”

Shapiro was also challenged over his demands that the industry stop paying ransoms and do more to protect ships, including hiring armed security. Mark Martecchini, managing director of Stolt Tankers, said if crews didn’t believe that owners would pay ransoms, they wouldn’t sign up for trips. “I think they would think twice before going,” he said.

But he won kudos for revealing that the administration is changing strategies to take out war lords in Somalia and other rogue nations who run the pirate operations from land. Overall, killings from piracy are up, reaching 32 last year, and costing shippers $7 billion a year. One shipping insurance official joked that ship owners should have put 1,000 miles of razor wire on Somalia’s coast instead of buying 14,000 miles of it for ship decks.