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Protecting against piracy difficult in vast area

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Bill Gortney: "It's an immense body of water"
  • Gortney: Size of a box from Houston to Chicago to New York to Jacksonville, Florida
  • Gortney: "There's about a 10-minute window ... that we have time to act"
  • Gortney spoke after U.S. Navy snipers killed three pirates, freeing U.S. hostage
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MANAMA, Bahrain (CNN) -- Efforts to protect ships from pirates in the waters off Somalia's east coast face a tremendous challenge: The vastness of the area makes it difficult to get to ships that are in danger.

John Reinhart, CEO of Maersk Line Limited, announces Phillips' rescue in Norfolk, Virginia, on Sunday.

The crew of the Maersk Alabama talked with media after the ship docked in Mombasa, Kenya.

"To put it in perspective, draw a box from Houston to Chicago to New York City down to Jacksonville, Florida. It's an immense body of water," U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters Sunday.

When the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, reported an attempted attack by pirates the day before the pirates successful attempt on Wednesday, "our closest vessel from all the navies that were out there -- we have 16 navies that are patrolling those waters -- and the closest one was the USS Bainbridge, and it was over 300 nautical miles," Gortney said.

The next day, when the Maersk company reported pirates had boarded its ship, "we were closing Bainbridge as quickly as we [could], but 22 knots, 300 miles, it takes a while to get there." View a timeline of the attack and its aftermath »

He added, "There's about a 10-minute window from when the pirates are able to get onboard that we have time to act."

Things are different on the north side of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden, where many piracy incidents have taken place. That area is "a little bit more concentrated," Gortney said, speaking from Bahrain.

"We've had more successful attempts" at breaking up piracy efforts in that region, he said. "But out on the east coast of Somalia, such a vast area, we simply do not have enough resources in order to cover all those areas."

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Gortney spoke to reporters by telephone Sunday after Navy snipers shot and killed three pirates who had held Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips hostage since Wednesday. Phillips was freed by the U.S. Navy uninjured. Video Watch how U.S. forces believed Phillips was in danger »

Phillips graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which trains mariners on the dangers of piracy, the president of the academy said.

"The sea is a dangerous place -- pirates [are] just one of the many dangers," Adm. Rick Gurnon of the academy told reporters after the rescue. The academy "tries to educate you and prepare you to keep you from danger, but it doesn't always work."

He noted that while Phillips' story had a happy ending, more than 200 mariners remain captives at sea, and called on the international community to beef up security in the waters by arming crews, increasing warships and reducing the ability of Somalis to obtain ships from coastal safehavens.

"It will certainly take hard work and money and focus," he said, "but we've got to stop it or we begin to risk lives in areas of the world that are vital for national security."

Chris Voss, former FBI international kidnapping negotiator, told CNN that the pirates from the impoverished, war-torn nation need an alternative way to make money.

"Unfortunately, they found themselves in a position where they could start piracy in the region and it's become a virus," Voss told CNN. "It's easy money ... and once it gets into a culture, it's very difficult to get out, and the only way to get it out is attack on multiple levels."

Asked whether he was concerned that this incident, including the deaths of three of the four pirates involved in the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of Phillips, could escalate violence in the region, Gortney responded, "Yes ... This could escalate violence in this part of the world. No question about it."

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But some experts believe the rescue may help set a tone that will eventually deter piracy in the region.

"This one incident, if it is the only time that we take this robust action, will not deter," retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told CNN. "But this incident, the next incident, the next incident after that -- a long term pattern will certainly have a deterrent effect against piracy."

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