By Ann Scott Tyson and Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 16, 2009
The Obama administration yesterday called for expanding the international counterpiracy effort to deter Somali pirates, secure the release of hostage ships and crews, and freeze pirate assets, yet U.S. military officials said there are no immediate plans to devote more warships to the region.
"These pirates are criminals, they are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in announcing a four-point plan that includes assisting Somalis in "cracking down on pirate bases and decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy."
Somali pirates yesterday attempted to commandeer another U.S. cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, which had a crew of about 20 and was loaded with food aid. But the attack was thwarted, and the ship headed toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa with armed U.S. Navy guards aboard, Navy officials said.
The pirate attack occurred about 285 nautical miles southeast of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the officials said. The pirates fired grenades and automatic weapons at the freighter, which sustained some damage, according to its operator, Liberty Maritime Corp. The pirates had departed by the time the guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge arrived.
It was not immediately clear whether the Liberty Sun was a target of opportunity for pirates or whether they were retaliating against a U.S.-flagged ship for the killings by U.S. Navy snipers this week of three pirates during an operation to rescue the Maersk Alabama's captain, Richard Phillips.
Nevertheless, the incident underscored how difficult it is for the handful of naval ships patrolling the vast expanse of water to prevent pirate strikes, which happen on average every three days, military officials said.
Currently, there are five U.S. and non-U.S. naval ships operating on counterpiracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean region, according to a military official from U.S. Central Command. With roughly 500 miles of Somali coastline on the gulf and 1,000 on the Indian Ocean, there is a total of about 400,000 square miles of ocean to patrol against piracy, the officials said.
"It's a big space, and it wants for sustained surveillance. . . . It's hard to find these relatively small boats," such as the pirate skiffs, said retired Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, who commanded the 5th Fleet and U.S. naval forces in the Middle East until last year.
Military options for bolstering the effort include "flooding the zone" with more ships and aircraft, a daunting task given the need for constant patrolling over such a large area, Cosgriff said.
A second option, he said, would be to "go ashore light," meaning that military personnel would try to disrupt piracy by denying pirates boats, fuel and other resources. "It would be a military operation but simply to get stuff, not to arrest people," he said.
A far more aggressive approach, which he called "go ashore big," would involve military personnel moving into Somali villages and targeting the pirate leadership. "That is a big step" with serious risks, he said.
Nonmilitary options include encouraging commercial ships to stay farther offshore, learn evasive anti-piracy maneuvers or carry armed guards, although Cosgriff said shipping companies have hesitated to do the last because of potential problems with unions, insurers and some ports.
The region off the Horn of Africa poses the world's most serious piracy problem today, with 122 attacks last year, 80 of which were successful in that pirates took control of the ships. About 33,000 ships transited the Gulf of Aden last year, according to Pentagon data. Dozens of pirate attacks have occurred off the east coast of Somalia since March, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Somalia's piracy problem is especially grave because the country lacks a strong government and security forces to tackle it -- in contrast to countries in Southeast Asia, where the Pentagon helped combat piracy in the Strait of Malacca in recent years.
"There was a huge piracy problem around the Strait of Malacca," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday in a speech to officers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.
The Pentagon pushed training teams and new equipment to aid the navies of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. "The problem in Somalia is that we don't have governments like we had in Southeast Asia," Gates said.
This week, Clinton said, the State Department will dispatch an envoy to an international Somali peacekeeping meeting in Brussels aimed at helping Somalia police its own territory. "We will press these leaders to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories," Clinton said.
An international contact group on piracy will also hold meetings to improve coordination of naval patrols in the region and explore freezing pirate assets. A State Department team will press Somali government officials to act against pirates on land and will work with the shipping industry to address self-defense measures.
In a separate incident yesterday, French naval forces captured 11 pirates in the Indian Ocean after foiling their attempt to hijack a Liberian-flagged cargo ship, the French Defense Ministry announced.
The Liberty Sun attack slowed the return home of Phillips, who was on board the Bainbridge when it was diverted. White House officials said several of the families of the Maersk Alabama crew members were given a tour of the White House yesterday.
Staff writers Greg Jaffe and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.