U.N. Authorizes Land, Air Attacks on Somali Pirates
International Effort to Secure Sea Route May Stumble Amid Political Disarray in East African Nation

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 16 -- The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize nations to conduct military raids, on land and by air, against pirates plying the waters off the Somalia coast even as two more ships were reportedly hijacked at sea.

The vote represented a major escalation by the world's big powers in the fight against the pirates, who have disrupted commerce along one of the world's most active sea routes and acquired tens of millions of dollars in ransom. It came as China -- which has had several ships commandeered in recent months -- said it is seriously considering joining U.S., European and Russian warships policing the region.

The U.S.-drafted resolution authorizes nations to "use all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia" in pursuit of pirates, as long as they are approved by the country's transitional federal government. The resolution also urges states to deploy naval vessels and military aircraft to carry out the operations, and it calls for the creation of a regional office to coordinate the international effort.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who personally pushed for the resolution's passage, said the vote sends "a strong signal of commitment to combat the scourge of piracy. Piracy currently pays. But worse, pirates pay few costs for their criminality; their dens in Somalia provide refuge from the naval ships in the Gulf of Aden."

Rice said the United States would help establish a contact group of governments to share intelligence and to coordinate naval and military operations in the region.

She also called on the shipping industry to strengthen the defenses of commercial vessels and urged countries victimized by piracy to detain captured pirates and prosecute them in their own courts. An unwillingness to apprehend and prosecute pirates captured on the high seas has hindered the global response to the threat, Rice said.

More than 60 ships have been seized by pirates this year, including two on Tuesday -- a Turkish cargo ship and an Indonesian tugboat under contract with the French oil firm Total.

Rice's diplomatic achievement in the council was tempered by the unraveling political and security situation in Somalia, which could jeopardize the international effort. Somalia's government has been hobbled by a power struggle between its president and prime minister.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that Somalia may descend into "chaos" by the end of the month, when an Ethiopian occupation force leaves the country. He said his efforts to muster an international force strong enough to stabilize the situation have been unsuccessful.

Ban rejected Rice's proposal for a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, suggesting that conditions there were not secure enough. Instead, he asked the Security Council to increase funding for a financially strapped African Union force that has struggled to secure strategic sea and air ports.

Rice countered that it would be better to place the Africans under a U.N. flag, which would require the world body's 192 members to fund the operation. She urged the council to authorize a peacekeeping mission by the end of the year but said the United States was not yet prepared to present such a resolution to the council. "While the conditions may not be auspicious for peacekeeping, they will be less auspicious if chaos reigns in Somalia," she said. She voiced concern that Islamist extremists could take advantage of a breakdown in security to stage a return to power for the second time in three years.

Aid groups, meanwhile, said the approval of military raids could worsen the situation on the ground. "Expanding anti-piracy operations inside Somalia risks further complicating the conflict and could exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis," said Nicole Widdersheim, who heads Oxfam International's New York office. She urged nations to focus on reducing violence within the country, rather than "the threat to commercial interests from piracy off the Somali coast."

The commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet warned last week that ground attacks on suspected Somali pirates would put the lives of innocent civilians at risk. Rice told reporters Tuesday, "What we do or do not do in cases of hot pursuit we'll have to see, and you'll have to take it case by case."

The Security Council meeting, which was attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, marked the end of a two-day effort by Rice to showcase progress on a series of international crises, including the Middle East conflict and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Early Tuesday, the council adopted a rare Middle East security resolution, which highlighted international efforts to end the conflict.

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