Shippers seek naval blockade of Somali coast

Officials say military action needed to prevent ship hijackings


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia --

Shipping officials from around the world called for a military blockade Monday along the coast of Somalia to intercept pirate vessels heading out to sea.

Peter Swift, managing director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, said stronger naval action - including aerial and aviation support - is necessary to battle rampant piracy in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia.

Some 20 tankers sail through the sea lane daily but many tanker owners are considering a massive detour around southern Africa to avoid pirates, which will delay delivery and push cost up by 30 percent, he said.

The association, whose members own 2,900 tankers or 75 percent of the world's fleet, opposes attempts to arm merchant ships because it could escalate the violence and put crew members at risk, he said.

"The other option is perhaps putting a blockade around Somalia and introducing the idea of intercepting vessels leaving Somalia rather than to try to protect the whole of the Gulf of Aden," said Swift.

A blockade along Somalia's 2,400 mile coastline would not be easy, Swift said. "But some intervention there may be effective," he told reporters on the sidelines of a shipping conference here.

U.S. Gen. John Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander, said Monday that the alliance's mandate is solely to escort World Food Program ships to Somalia and to conduct anti-piracy patrols.

Asked what he thought of a Russian proposal to jointly attack the pirate strongholds, Craddock answered: "That's far beyond what I've been tasked to do."

NATO has four warships on duty off the coast of Somalia, an impoverished nation caught up in an Islamic insurgency that has had no functioning government since 1991. The U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain also contributes to policing the coast, along with frigates from Russia, India, Malaysia and Denmark.

But the navies say it is virtually impossible to patrol the vast sea around the gulf.

Somali pirates have become increasingly brazen, seizing eight vessels in the past two weeks, including a huge Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil.

There have been 95 pirate attacks so far this year in Somali waters, with 39 ships hijacked. Fifteen ships with nearly 300 crew are still in the hands of Somali pirates, who dock the hijacked vessels near the eastern and southern coast as they negotiate for ransom.

"Any action to prevent the pirates from heading out to sea is welcome," said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur. He said it was up to the international community to decide how they can deploy their forces for the blockade.

The Baltic and International Maritime Council, the world's largest private shipping organization, echoed calls for greater military action.

"Despite increased patrols by coalition forces, piracy attacks continue. We hope a system ... will be put in place to coordinate the coalition forces," said Thomas Timlen, its Asian liaison officer. "It's clear from recent events ... that more needs to be done."

Both Swift and Timlen said a blockade is possible if the multi-coalition naval force coordinate their actions and more warships are sent to the area with a stronger mandate.

U.N. resolutions now allow pursuit of pirate ships but various countries interpret the law differently, Swift said.

He called for a clear mandate from the United Nations to allow warships to intercept pirate ships and arrest the sea bandits.

___

Associated Press correspondent Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.