Piracy attacks decline around Somali coast

WASHINGTON -- Two months into an international anti-piracy campaign off the Somalia coast, the number of attacks against cargo ships is down sharply, senior military and diplomatic officials said Thursday.

Officials told Congress that there are no plans as yet to pursue pirates inside the largely ungoverned east African nation, as endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution in December.

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon is looking at the issue of internal strikes and acknowledged that, "ultimately, the solution to the problem of piracy is ashore - in Somalia."

From September to January, the number of attacks was a dozen or more a month. The number fell to just seven in February, officials said, and there has been just one successful piracy attack since Feb. 1.

Gortney, however, said the key will be to watch the progress over the next year, to see if the increased patrols, along with new agreements allowing suspected pirates to be prosecuted, will keep the level of attacks low.

On Thursday, the U.S. transferred seven pirates over to Kenyan authorities, who signed an agreement in January with the U.S. and Britain to try piracy suspects. Tanzania has expressed interest in forging a similar agreement, according to Stephen Mull, acting undersecretary of state for international security.

Piracy in the region shot up last August, fueled by a number of successful seizures that netted the pirates millions of dollars. According to the Navy, there were 122 pirate attacks in 2008, and 42 were successful. But the attacks have also underscored the need to address the political and security problems within Somalia.

"There will be no lasting solution to the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden until Somalia's failed state is addressed," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo. "I fear that the situation on the ground in Somalia will be repeated in other failed states and in states with vast areas of ungoverned territory within their borders."

Lawmakers said that greater efforts must be made to monitor and track the ransom payments to better get at the leaders coordinating the attacks. Gortney said tracking is difficult, noting that the pirates make their demands over satellite phone to shipping companies, and the cash - paid usually in U.S. dollars or British pounds - is dropped to the pirates.

Mull said a move to better regulate the ransom payments was rejected by European governments concerned about added risk to the hostages.

So far, Gortney said, there has been no suggestion that the piracy attacks are linked to any Islamic terrorist factions. Instead, they are crimes motivated by money - as they have been for centuries. The pirates, he said, are not going after particular countries or ships, but rather are simply looking for easy targets.

As many as 17 nations are participating in the increased patrols, and another eight or so are expected to join in the coming months. Gortney noted that officials are working to share information with all of the other navy ships, but some communication is a bit unorthodox.

While authorities from NATO and other coalition nations communicate regularly through internet systems, they use more low-tech bridge-to-bridge radio to talk with the Russians, and to talk to their Chinese naval colleagues they send unclassified e-mails to their Yahoo account.

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On the Net:

U.S. Navy 5th Fleet: http://www.cusnc.navy.mil/

House Armed Services Committee: http://www.house.gov/hasc/


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