updated 8/21/2009 11:52:21 AM ET 2009-08-21T15:52:21

Merchant vessels have been increasingly able to thwart attacks from Somali pirates by boosting their own security and following a special sea corridor watched by international warships, the new U.S. commander of an anti-piracy task force said Friday.

Despite a sharp increase in reported pirate assaults this year, the stronger countermeasures by merchant crews — including special armed units — has cut into the ability of pirates to storm the ships, said Rear Adm. Scott Sanders, who took charge of the multinational flotilla last week.

Sanders said 80 percent of foiled pirate attacks are now accomplished by merchant crews without help from military vessels. Dozens of warships patrol the busy shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden — including a special sea route designed to keep ships in closer proximity and less vulnerable to being waylaid.

"This just shows what the merchant community can do," Sanders told The Associated Press in a phone interview from the USS Anzio, part of the task force that began patrols in January.

He said merchant captains were being urged to take simple precautions such as adding barbed wire to decks and rolling up ladders, but naval commanders in the region "do not discourage" use of weapons to fight back against the well-armed pirates.

The owner of an Egyptian fishing vessel held by pirates described this week how he used hired Somali gunmen to free the ship and crew after persuading the pirates to allow him on board with a portion of the demanded $800,000 ransom. Eight of the pirates were taken captive and could face trial in Egypt.

In April, the crew of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama battled pirates on the deck until the captain, Richard Phillips, offered himself as hostage . Phillips was freed after five days held hostage in a lifeboat when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three of his captors.

Arming crews, granting immunity
The U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment in June that would require armed teams on U.S.-flagged ships passing through high-risk waters, including off the Horn of Africa. The proposal now goes to the Senate.

A separate bill would grant immunity from prosecution in American courts for use of force to defend a U.S.-flagged vessel "against an act of piracy."

More than 135 pirate attacks have been reported so far this year off the coast of lawless Somalia — more than the total for all last year — but just 28 ships have been commandeered, Sanders said. Last year, 44 ships fell into pirate hands.

"This has to do with the action of the maritime community themselves and not to do with law enforcement or the military," said Sanders, who took command from Rear Adm. Caner Bener of the Turkish navy.

The anti-pirate task force is part of an international naval deployment to battle piracy off the Horn of Africa, including vessels from NATO, China and India.

More on: Somali pirates | Maersk Alabama

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