US calls on UN to hunt pirates by land and air

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- As Somalia's government crumbles, the U.S. is proposing that the United Nations authorize tracking down Somali pirates not only at sea, but on land and in Somali air space.

The United States is circulating the draft U.N. Security Council resolution as one of the Bush administration's last major foreign policy initiatives. The resolution proposes that all nations and regional groups cooperating with Somalia's U.N.-backed government in the fight against piracy and armed robbery "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia."

But Somalia's struggling government may need even more propping up.

The council's group that monitors Somalia reported Thursday that more than 15,000 soldiers and police - representing 80 percent of the government's security capabilities - have deserted the government and fled with their vehicles, weapons and ammunition.

Since May there has been a steady disintegration of Somalia's government, which earmarks 70 percent of its budget for security but spends little for that purpose because of corruption, South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo told the council.

Piracy is booming, meanwhile, with some 1,500 pirates based in the semi-autonomous Puntland region raking in millions of dollars, with armed opposition groups getting much of their funding from charities, the Internet and trades, he said.

Somalia's government welcomed the U.S. initiative. Somali government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon said Thursday the government will offer any help it can.

If the U.S. military gets involved, it would mark a dramatic turnabout from the U.S. experience in Somalia in 1992-1993 that culminated in a deadly military clash in Mogadishu followed by a humiliating withdrawal of American forces.

A small number of U.S. Navy ships already are involved in patrolling the waters off Somalia. A senior administration official in Washington said Thursday that while the proposal would give the U.S. military more options in confronting the pirates, it does not mean the U.S. is planning a ground assault.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the resolution would simply provide the possibility of taking action ashore, including from Somalia's air space, in the event of timely intelligence on the pirates' whereabouts. The official said it should not be assumed that such action would necessarily involve U.S. forces.

Without committing more U.S. Navy ships, the Bush administration wants to tap into what officials see as a growing enthusiasm in Europe and elsewhere for more effective coordinated action against the Somali pirates. Administration officials view the current effort as lacking coherence, as pirates score more and bigger shipping prizes.

The U.S. resolution is to be presented at a session on Somalia Tuesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

It proposes that for a year nations "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace, to interdict those who are using Somali territory to plan, facilitate or undertake acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea and to otherwise prevent those activities."

The draft also says Somalia's government - whose president already wrote the U.N. twice this month seeking help - suffers from a "lack of capacity, domestic legislation, and clarity about how to dispose of pirates after their capture."

Britain agreed Thursday to hand over pirate suspects captured off Somalia's lawless coast to face trial in Kenya, removing a key legal obstacle to prosecuting them, a British diplomat said at a U.N.-organized piracy conference.

More than 40 nations attended the conference in Kenya, where they failed to produce a consensual legal framework for tackling piracy but recommended regulation for armed guards on ships and establishing a common policy to discourage ransom payments.

In the past, foreign navies patrolling the Somali coast have been reluctant to detain suspects because of uncertainties over where they would face trial as Somalia has no effective central government or legal system.

About 100 attacks on ships have been reported off the Somali coast this year, with the pirates growing increasingly audacious in their targets.

Forty vessels including a Ukrainian freighter loaded with 33 battle tanks and a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude have been hijacked, with 14 still remaining in the hands of pirates along with more than 250 crew members, according to maritime officials.

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Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Pauline Jelinek contributed from Washington; Katharine Houreld from Nairobi, Kenya; and Salad Duhul from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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