Brussels: It sounds easy: dispatch naval commandos to storm a hijacked cargo ship, shoot or capture the ragtag band of pirates and free the hostage crew.
But experts warn such a rescue attempt would be extremely risky, endangering 300 hostages on other hijacked vessels and breaching U.N. mandates, maritime laws and international merchant marine guidelines.
The problem is further complicated by regional politics and practical issues such as the massive size of the area being patrolled by a handful of warships: about 1.1 million sq. miles (3 million sq. kilometers), an area larger than the Mediterranean Sea.
NATO currently has just four warships on duty off the 3,900 kilometer-long (2,400 mile) coastline of Somalia, an impoverished nation caught up in an Islamic insurgency that has had no functioning government since 1991.
The U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, contributes to the policing of the Somali coast with several ships stationed in the region as part of America’s anti-jihadist war. Working alongside are frigates from several other nations - including Russia, India, Malaysia and Denmark.
Next month, the European Union takes over the NATO mission, sending four ships to replace the four currently patrolling under the NATO flag.
The Europeans say they may send more ships if necessary but caution such a move would take time because of the need to prepare boats and crew trained for the North Atlantic to operate in the Indian Ocean’s equatorial waters.
Currently, patrols work under a restrictive U.N. mandate that allows force only in the case of direct attacks on the 20,000 cargo ships transiting through the area annually.
“They can patrol. They can deter. They can even stop attacks that are happening, but what they do not do is then board the ship that has been hijacked elsewhere to try and free it,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
The U.S. Navy is similarly constrained.
“We have a full range of options ... that allow us to stop pirates from attacking merchant vessels,” said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet in Bahrein. “But once the ship is hijacked, it’s a hostage situation and we don’t see a military solution is the right one to pursue.”
Responding to the crisis, the Security Council on Thursday imposed new sanctions on pirates, arms smugglers, and perpetrators of instability in Somalia, but stopped short of allowing warships to intercept seized ships.
Strategies proposed to combat the piracy scourge include attacking the bandits on land, arming merchant vessels, and rerouting ships away from the volatile region near Somalia for a massive detour around southern Africa.
Experts reject such measures as unrealistic.
“The only solution I see is a coordinated effort by various naval forces. The problem is that no single country wants to take the lead,” said Fred Burton, a vice president of Stratfor, a U.S.-based intelligence risk assessment agency.
“Given the pirates’ emerging new tactics and technologies, such as using ’mother ships’ to transport smaller attack boats out to sea, global positioning systems and satellite phones, it should be expected that the range of pirate activity will increase,” he said.
Last week, pirates seized their greatest prize yet, the supertanker MV Sirius Star, far south of the Somali coastline. The ship, carrying 2 million barrels of oil and 25 crew members, is now anchored off a Somali port.
Analysts say the Somali gangs have invested much of the estimated $150 million in ransom paid so far in new speedboats equipped with added firepower, including heavy 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers - a serious threat to even the largest merchant vessels.
Some shipping companies have hired private security firms and are even considering arming their crews. But the International Maritime Organization opposes such measures which they say put crews in greater danger if they are boarded by pirates.
Instead, it recommends sailing through pirate-infested waters at night, battening down all hatches to prevent entry into the ship, and posting lookouts with high-pressure hoses to ward off the light speedboats.
“One of the risks in carrying weapons is that you have to be sure you’ll win because you’re risking much more aggressive behavior from your attackers,” said Chris Austen, who heads the London-based Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants.
Austen also noted that national laws generally forbid merchant ships from carrying weapons, which could subject crews to arrest in ports throughout Africa and the Mediterranean.
He noted that armed confrontations increase the danger of hostage bloodbaths that have so far been avoided.
“The kidnappers so far have been very careful to look after the people they seized, and there have been very few injuries and deaths,” he said.
A number of shipping companies are considering rerouting their vessels from transiting through the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal - the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe - and instead sending them around the Cape of Good Hope.
Experts say this much longer journey would add 12-15 days to the trip and entail a prohibitive cost increase amounting to $20,000-$30,000 a day.
International legal questions are also delaying solutions. It remains unclear, for example, what would happen if a French boat intervenes on a hijacked Brazilian ship and arrests Somali pirates. Legal experts have not yet determined which country would have jurisdiction over the case.
As world governments and agencies scramble to find a broader long-term solution, some are saying that helping the Somali government re-establish control of security over lawless coastal regions is the only sure way to end the threat.
“The international community ... needs to look at the root cause and that is political instability in Somalia. In the end, that is going to be the solution to this problem,” said Appathurai.