ABOARD THE USNS LEWIS AND CLARK Feb. 12, 2009 — -- The U.S. Navy has grabbed its first pirates in more than 50 years, swooping down on two boatloads of suspects and throwing them into a brig.
A total of 16 Somalis captured in two separate incidents this week were taken into custody aboard the USS Vella Gulf, then transferred to the USNS Lewis and Clark -- a supply ship enlisted to support a special Navy task force dedicated to combating modern-day pirates.
The suspected pirates will be held in one of the Lewis and Clark's cargo holds, which has been converted into a jail on the high seas.
Seven men were caught Wednesday night by the Navy cruiser Vella Gulf after the suspected pirates tried to hijack a commercial ship. The Vella Gulf rushed to the scene after the Polaris, a ship registered to the Marshall Islands, put out a distress signal.
The Polaris' crew thwarted the pirates by shoving a ladder into the ocean as the hijackers clambered up the side of the ship on the ladder. The Polaris then sped away.
Nine more pirates were nabbed this morning in a separate incident. According to a statement by the Navy's 5th Fleet, the Indian-flagged MV Premdivya reported being fired upon by pirates in a small skiff, who then tried to climb on board.
The Navy said it sent a helicopter from the Vella Gulf to the scene. The helicopter fired two warning shots, after which the gunmen broke off in an attempt to flee.
All of the captured suspects are middle-aged Somali men and all are now in the brig. Their fishing boat, weapons and other tools are being held as evidence.
The men were given food, medical attention and a quick shower as they were processed in the hull of the ship. Their torn clothes were replaced with orange jumpsuits as they began what will be a several-week stay with the U.S. Navy. From there, they will face trial on shore, most likely by Kenya, an African country that signed an agreement with the United States to prosecute suspected pirates.
The arrests are the first since an international flotilla of warships swarmed into the waters off of Somalia four months ago after the shipping industry became alarmed over the rampant hijacking of ships, including a Ukranian vessel loaded with Russian tanks and a fully loaded Saudi oil supertanker.
The number of attacks more than doubled in 2008, and the typical ransom demanded grew from $500,000 to millions.
The arrests may mark the beginning of a pirate crackdown. According to a U.S. official speaking on background, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a "Counter-Piracy Execute Order" for the Horn of Africa last Thursday, creating a vast operating zone to go after pirates.
The zone includes the Gulf of Aden along the northern coast of Somalia and extends along Somalia's and Kenya's Indian Ocean coastline. Pirate attacks more than doubled last year in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The official said that due to the good sailing weather they expected to find a lot of pirates on the high seas, and it is open season to pick them up.
Adm. Terry McKnight is heading the Navy's anti-piracy effort and compares his job to being a cop on the beat, only on water.
The MV Faina Arrives in Kenya
It's not clear what will happen to the alleged Somali pirates in custody aboard the Lewis and Clark. Their fishing boat is being held by the Navy as evidence.
Sources have previously told ABC News that Kenya has agreed to take custody of captured Somali pirates until they can be tried, but there is no indication where the first batch of pirates is heading.
McKnight told ABC News the answer to the pirate problem is on land -- a restoration of law and order in war-torn Somalia. Much depends on Somalia's new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who has promised to crack down on pirates and cooperate with U.S. Navy efforts.
The new president, however, has control over little territory, and the Somali government currently is based in the nation of Djibouti for its safety.
An Indian warship announced last year that it had sunk a pirate boat, but it later turned out that the boat was a Thai fishing vessel that was being taken over by pirates.
One of the hijacked ships that prompted the international response, the MV Faina, arrived at the port of Mombasa, Kenya, today. The Faina, which was loaded with Russian tanks and rocket-propelled grenades, was held by pirates for four months.
The ship was released last week after a $3.2 million ransom was parachuted onto the ship's deck. The Faina's crew was unhurt, except for the ship's captain, who died of a suspected heart attack during the kidnapping.
The U.S. Navy has repeatedly been sent after pirates during its history.
The first frigates the U.S. Navy ever built were intended to go after Barbary pirates, which ravaged American shipping until two wars in the early 1800s ended their reign of terror. The naval offensive is memorialized in a line in the "Marine Corps Hymn": "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli."
Many of the pirates in those years used Tripoli, on the North African coast, as their base.
Lt. Commander Charles Daniels of the U.S. Navy Information Office said American ships battled pirates in the Gulf of Mexico before and after the Civil War, and chased pirates in the South Pacific in 1858.
The Navy was also was called upon to battle pirates around the Philippines in the early 1900s, in Asia from 1908 to 1930 and in the South China Sea in the late 1940s.