International flotilla to fight Somali pirates

10 nations team together to defend security of international shipping

NAIROBI, Kenya -- U.S. warships watched a hijacked vessel laden with tanks while other gunboats patrolled the dangerous waters off Somalia, but pirates still seized another freighter this week - and now hold about a dozen despite the international effort to protect a major shipping lane.

Military vessels from 10 nations are now converging on the world's most dangerous waters, but analysts and a Somali government official say the campaign won't halt piracy unless it also confronts with the quagmire that is Somalia.

"World powers have neglected Somalia for years on end, and now its problems are touching the world, they have started on the wrong footing," said Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, adviser to the president of Puntland, the semi-autonomous Somali region that is the pirates' base.

South Africa's Business Day newspaper issued a similar warning. "A lawless state, that sunk as the world watched and gave up, is now threatening international commerce," it said of the chaotic Horn of Africa country that has resisted intervention, including a disastrous U.S. mission in 1996.

The continued seizures of vessels - despite the presence of U.S. warships - highlights the difficulties of patrolling the waters off Somalia. The chief concern is that the brazen attacks could fuel terrorism and make one of the world's major shipping routes too dangerous and expensive to traverse. Insurance rates for sailing in the area zone already have shot up tenfold in a year.

The area in question is the Gulf of Aden, a 920-mile (1480-kilometer) by 300-mile (483-kilometer) basin separating the Arabian coast from the Horn of Africa. It is used by about 250 ships a day, said a U.S. Navy spokeswoman, Lt. Stephanie Murdock.

The area was the scene of the deadly al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole off Yemen. And it is a hive of illegal activity, including gunrunning as well as people- and drug-smuggling.

Ships slow down off Somalia's northern coast waiting to enter the Red Sea en route to Arab refineries and the Suez Canal - a route used to transport more than 10 percent of the world's petroleum and Asian goods to Europe and North America.

Roger Middleton, an expert on the region, said the dangers include the high cost if ships avoid the Gulf of Aden and go around Africa's southern tip instead and the "nightmare scenario" of pirates becoming tools of terrorists.

"A large ship sunk in the approach to the Suez Canal would have a devastating impact on international trade," Middleton said in a paper published by Chatham House, a London think tank.

Already some ransom piracy proceeds are believed to go to al-Shabab, a Somali militia that the U.S. accuses of harboring the terrorists who attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

The Navy said that U.S. and coalition vessels and aircraft have thwarted 15 pirate attacks since they set up a "maritime security patrol area" in the Gulf of Aden on Aug. 22.

That was with six or seven ships patrolling 2.4 million square miles (6.22 million square kilometers) of water - an area including the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the African coast of Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya under a coalition set up in 2001 to fight terrorism.

"It's a large water space that takes a certain amount of time to transit so, while we would want to assist all mariners, a logistics factor comes into play as to how fast we can get there," said Murdock, the Navy spokeswoman.

Last year, apparently fearing pirates could make a floating bomb out of a seized tanker carrying 10,000 tons of explosive benzene, American sailors fired on and destroyed pirate skiffs attached to the vessel.

This year, France sent sailors who made daring assaults on seized French yachts and pursued pirates onto Somali soil.

France then went on a diplomatic offensive, winning one U.N. Security Council resolution allowing foreign powers to enter Somali waters and another allowing nations to send warships and military aircraft free to use "the necessary (military) means" to stop piracy.

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