Pentagon defends military effort against pirates

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Pentagon offered a spirited defense Wednesday of its efforts to thwart an "alarming" spate of pirate attacks off Somalia's coast, saying the world's militaries are doing more than ever against the high-seas crime.

Despite increased multinational naval patrols in waters between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, there have been eight ship hijackings this week alone.

This year, 39 ships have been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that pirates off Somalia had taken in an estimated $25 million to $30 million in ransom in 2008.

Asked if the U.S. Navy is taking an active enough role to defeat the pirates, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell made an animated defense.

"This notion that there's inaction out there is just utterly false," Morrell told a Pentagon news conference.

"This week, I think the British killed a number of pirates onboard a ship," he said. "The Indians sunk a dhow. The Germans buzzed a British ship with one of their helicopters and prevented a pirate situation. I think the Italians did something similar."

Morrell said he also takes issue with "this whole notion that it's incumbent upon the armed forces of the world - the navies of the world - to solve this problem."

Private shipping companies should do more to protect themselves, Morrell said.

"We have an obligation to protect international shipping lines," he said. "But the companies ... also have an obligation to secure their ships to prevent incidents such that we've been seeing at alarming rates over the past several months."

"You could have all the navies in the world having all their ships out there ... it's not going to ever solve this problem," he said.

He suggested companies use more lookouts, hire armed guards and take other precautions.

Since the problem doesn't emanate from the sea but rather on land, Somalia needs help from the U.N., the African Union and "the world to try to deal with some of the economic and governance problems that lead to pirates," he said. Somalia is suffering an Islamic insurgency and has had no functioning government since 1991.

International authorities need to work out other issues - such as what to do legally with pirates captured at sea, where to prosecute them and so on.

"This is a criminal problem that has to be combated in a comprehensive way," Morrell said.

He said officials are working toward an extension of a soon-to-expire U.N. Security Council resolution that gives other nations authority to conduct counter-piracy operations within Somalia waters.

He declined to say whether officials are thinking about going after pirate dens on land.

"The mere increased naval presence that we've seen out there - and there are more naval ships out there from around the world than there have ever been - is having an impact," he said, adding that pirates successfully hijacked ships on 53 percent of their attempts before August, compared with 31 percent of their attempts last month

Morrell also declined to say whether officials were considering a more aggressive stance toward pirate ships.

"We are constantly evaluating what the proper posture is," Morrell said. "And, trust me, this subject is being dealt with at the highest levels of this government. ... And we are constantly evaluating what the best approach is."

A committee of senior Bush administration national security officials met in recent weeks specifically to discuss piracy, one defense official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

"There were no firm outcomes," the official said. "More meetings are expected (on) this subject."

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