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Captain freed from pirates in daring rescue

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At the same time, the incident could escalate efforts by shipping nations to respond to the problem in a more effective way. A key question is now how much the higher profile of the issue, due to the Alabama affair, will prod nations into action. To date, the economics of the issue alone have not compelled a strong coordinated response. The owners of merchant ships have calculated that the risk of having a ship hijacked by pirates is small enough that paying a ransom – and seeing insurance costs rise – is cheaper than arming themselves to deter the problem.

"That should tell us something about just how low the threat of a pirate attack is," says Peter Leeson, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of "The Invisible Hook," a book on modern piracy.

Experts wonder, however, if the fallout from the failed hijacking of the Alabama will begin to change that. The solutions are not easy. Though 16 nations have warships in the Gulf of Aden – the elbow of water between the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa – pirates are moving out into the open ocean east of Somalia. This is much larger area to patrol. It is roughly equal in size to the eastern half of the United States.

This is where the Alabama was attacked. When pirates first began to harass the Alabama, the nearest warship – the Bainbridge – was 200 nautical miles away, with a top closing speed of 22 m.p.h. By the time it arrived, the pirates had already boarded the Alabama, been repelled, and taken Phillips hostage.

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