Richard Phillips, the US ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates, told Congress on Thursday that he thought arming some members of commercial ship crews could help beat back pirate attacks.

But shipping executive John Clancey opposed crews getting into an arms race with pirates on the high seas. Clancey is chairman of Maersk, parent company of Maersk Line, whose ship – Phillips’s Maersk Alabama – was attacked on 8 April.

US lawmakers tried not to play up the differences between Phillips and Clancey during a Senate hearing called to probe the growing number of attacks off the coast of Somalia. But some made it clear they preferred Phillips’s view.

“The idea that there wouldn’t be protection on board … just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” said Democratic Senator Jim Webb, a former secretary of the US Navy and advocate of gun ownership.

Commandos shot and killed three gunmen on 12 April to end the hostage ordeal for Phillips, who was being held on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean. A fourth suspected pirate was arrested and brought to the United States for trial.

Attacks on ships in the region have increased despite the presence of foreign warships.

Phillips told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ideally, the US government would provide protection to US-flag vessels, but he knew it might not have the resources to do so.

Arming some members of the crew was not the best or whole solution but could be part of a ‘comprehensive approach’ to combating piracy, he said.

“It would be my personal preference that only the four most senior-ranking officers aboard the vessel have access to effective weaponry and that these individuals receive training on a regular basis,” he said.

Clancey stressed an international solution was needed to the problem of piracy. He said the International Maritime Organisation strongly recommended against arming crews.

“Arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of ever more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, a race that merchant sailors cannot win,” Clancey said.

Clancey added that most ports of call would not permit the introduction of firearms into their national waters.

Clancey said his company was in discussions with the US Defense Department about the safety of US-flagged ships and that those talks would conclude in the next ten days or so.

Danish shipping and oil company AP Moller-Maersk, the parent shipping and oil company, said Wednesday it was stepping up security precautions off the coast of Somalia by having ships spend as little time in the area as possible, and to travel at maximum speed.