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'Pirates' Strike a U.S. Ship Owned by a Pentagon Contractor, But Is the Media Telling the Whole Story?

Reports say the crew of a U.S. cargo vessel seized early today has retaken the ship, but there's more to the story of rising "pirate" attacks.

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As soon as the [Somali] government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia -- and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence."

As the media coverage of the pirates has increased, private security companies like Xe/Blackwater have stepped in, seeing profits. A few months ago, Blackwater executives flew to London to meet with shipping company executives about protecting their ships from pirate attacks. In October, the company deployed the MacArthur, its "private sector warship equipped with helicopters" to the Gulf of Aden. "We have been contacted by shipowners who say they need our help in making sure goods get to their destination," said the company's executive vice-president, Bill Matthews. "The McArthur can help us accomplish that."

According to an engineer aboard the MacArthur, the ship, whose crew includes former Navy SEALS, was at one point stationed in an area several hundred miles off the coast of Yemen. "Security teams will escort ships around both horns of Africa, Somalia and Yemen as they head to the Suez Canal… The McArthur will serve as a staging point for the SEALs and their smaller boats."

All of this is important to keep in context any time you see a short blurb pop up about pirates attacking ships. "Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome?" Hari asked. "We won't act on those crimes -- the only sane solution to this problem -- but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we swiftly send in the gunboats."

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Just as it seemed that this drama was coming to an end, the story has taken a very bizarre turn. It seems as though the pirates essentially tricked the ship’s “all-American” crew into handing over the Alabama’s captain, Capt. Richard Phillips. 

After reports, based on Pentagon sources, emerged that the ship had been retaken by the US crew, word came from the ship that the captain of the “Alabama” had been taken by the pirates onto a lifeboat. The details of how exactly the four pirates managed to get the captain onto a lifeboat are still sketchy, but it seems a little bit like a scene out of a Marx brothers movie. The ship’s second mate Kenn Quinn was interviewed on CNN and described how the crew was essentially tricked into handing the captain over to the pirates. Quinn spoke to CNN’s Kyra Phillips:

Quinn: When they board, they sank their boats so the captain talked them into getting off the ship with the lifeboat. But we took one of their pirates hostage and did an exchange. What? Huh? Okay. I’ve got to go.

Phillips: Ken, can you stay with me for just two more seconds?

Quinn: What?

Phillips: Can you tell me about the negotiations, what you’ve offered these pirates in exchange for your captain?

Quinn: We had one of their hostages. We had a pirate we took and kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up and he was our prisoner.

Phillips: Did you return him?

Quinn: Yeah, we did. But we returned him but they didn’t return the captain. So now we’re just trying to offer them whatever we can. Food. But it’s not working too good.”

As TV Newser pointed out, “Later Phillips gave what may be the understatement of the day: ‘It sounds like the pirates did not keep their end of the deal.’”