NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- Private security guards shot and killed a Somali pirate during an attack on a merchant ship off the coast of East Africa in what is believed to be the first such killing by armed contractors, the EU Naval Force spokesman said Wednesday.
The death comes amid fears that increasingly aggressive pirates and the growing use of armed private security contractors onboard vessels could fuel increased violence on the high seas. The handling of the case may have legal implications beyond the individuals involved in Tuesday's shooting.
"This will be scrutinized very closely," said Arvinder Sambei, a legal consultant for the U.N.'s anti-piracy program. "There's always been concern about these (private security) companies. Who are they responsible to?"
The guards were onboard the MV Almezaan when a pirate group approached it twice, said EU Naval Force spokesman Cmdr. John Harbour. During the second approach on the Panamanian-flagged cargo ship, which is United Arab Emirates owned, there was an exchange of fire between the guards and the pirates.
An EU Naval Force frigate was dispatched to the scene and launched a helicopter that located the pirates. Seven pirates were found, including one who had died from small caliber gunshot wounds, indicating he had been shot by the contractors, said Harbour.
A statement by the Spanish Ministry of Defense said the warship Navarra had intercepted two skiffs and a larger vessel believed to be a pirate mothership. Spanish forces arrested the six remaining pirates, took custody of the pirate's body and sunk the larger boat, it said.
The two smaller skiffs had many bullet holes in them, the statement said. Spain was trying to reach the Somali government to hand over the body and get the cargo ship's crew to identify the detained suspects as their attackers. Spain was also trying to reach the ship's owner so formal charge of piracy could be laid and the detainees turned over to the Seychelles or Kenya under an agreement the two countries have with the EU.
Sambei said the case could become legally complicated. Investigators would have to establish who had jurisdiction - the flag the vessel was flying, its owners or the nationality of the contractors - and who was responsible for the security contractors in order to set up an independent inquiry, she said.
"The bottom line is somebody has been killed and someone has to give an accounting of that," she said.
Violent confrontations between ships and pirates are on the rise. Crews are becoming increasingly adept at repelling attacks by pirates in the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and many ship owners are using private security. But pirates are becoming more aggressive in response, shooting bullets and rocket-propelled grenades at ships to try to intimidate captains into stopping.
Several organizations, including the International Maritime Bureau, have expressed fears that the use of armed security contractors could encourage pirates to be more violent when taking a ship. Sailors have been hurt or killed before but this generally happens by accident or through poor health. There has only been one known execution of a hostage despite dozens of pirate hijackings.
International navies have killed about a dozen pirates over the past year, said Harbour. Hundreds more are believed to have died at sea, either by drowning or through dehydration when their water and fuel runs out, said Alan Cole, who heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's anti-piracy initiative.
Pirate attacks have not declined despite patrols by dozens of warships off the Somali coast. The amount of ocean to patrol is too vast to protect every ship and pirates have responded to the increased naval presence by moving attacks farther out to sea.
Experts say piracy is just one symptom of the general collapse of law and order in the failed state of Somalia, which has not had a functioning government in 19 years. They say attacks on shipping will continue as long as there is no central government capable of taking on the well-armed and well-paid pirate gangs.