US leads push to hunt down Somali pirates

In one of the Bush administration’s last major foreign policy initiatives, the US circulated a draft United Nations resolution seeking international authorisation to hunt down Somali pirates on land.

In one of the Bush administration’s last major foreign policy initiatives, the US circulated a draft United Nations resolution seeking international authorisation to hunt down Somali pirates on land.

The draft proposes that, with the co-operation of Somalia’s weak UN-backed government, all nations and regional groups in the fight against piracy and armed robbery “may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia”, including its airspace.

If that involved the US military it would mark a remarkable turnabout from the US experience in Somalia in the final days of President George Bush senior’s administration in 1992, leading in late 1993 to a deadly US military clash in Mogadishu and the humiliating US withdrawal.

The US-drafted UN Security Council resolution is to be presented at a session on Somalia next 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 resolution also notes that Somalia’s government – whose president wrote to the UN twice this month already seeking help – suffers from a “lack of capacity, domestic legislation, and clarity about how to dispose of pirates after their capture”.

Earlier this month, the security council extended authorisation for another year for countries to enter Somalia’s territorial waters, with advance notice, and to use “all necessary means” to stop acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.

Nations entering Somali waters to fight piracy and robbery along the country’s 1,880-mile coastline, the continent’s longest, must first obtain approval from the Somali government and give advance notice to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. But now the US believes the fight must go ashore.

Other international forces, however, have fared poorly in the past trying to help Somalia, whose latest government was formed in 2004, with the help of the UN, and is backed by Ethiopia.

A UN peacekeeping force met with disaster there in 1993, when militiamen shot down two US Army Black Hawk helicopters and battled US troops, killing 18. That experience, precipitating the US withdrawal, was portrayed in the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down.

Ethiopia troops, the region’s strongest force, have been regularly attacked since arriving two years ago. They have largely been confined to urban bases, as have the 2,600 African Union peacekeepers sent as part of an approved 8,000-member AU mission.

The push for a broader international accord on how to suppress piracy in waters off Somalia’s lawless coast is one of President Bush’s final foreign policy initiatives, officials say.

A central reason is that piracy has escalated recently – more attacks against a wider range of targets, including unsuccessful assaults on cruise ships – in the Gulf of Aden, which links the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

In September, pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter loaded with 33 battle tanks and on November 15 they seized a Saudi oil tanker carrying £66.5 million worth of crude oil.

About 100 attacks on ships have been reported off the Somali coast this year and 40 vessels hijacked, with 14 still remaining in the hands of pirates along with more than 250 crew members, according to maritime officials.

Pirates have attacked 32 vessels and hijacked 12 since Nato sent four ships to the region on October 24 to escort cargo ships and conduct anti-piracy patrols. Ships still being held for huge ransoms include the Saudi oil tanker and the Ukrainian ship.

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

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