Somalia: International navies working to stop pirates

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An international naval flotilla of vessels from the European Union, NATO, Russia, China, the United States and other nations is patrolling the Gulf of Aden to deter Somali pirates.

On an average day, 17 ships offer security in a sea corridor where an estimated 30,000 commercial cargo vessels sail each year. The navy ships assigned to the mission collaborate without a formal military structure or supervising naval commander. U.S. State Department official Thomas Countryman said the model that has evolved works well and could be readily adapted elsewhere.

Countryman, who is the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, led the U.S. delegation to the fifth plenary meeting of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia in New York in January. Formed a year ago, the group meets quarterly at the United Nations.

Nearly 50 nations and seven international organizations, including the African Union, NATO, the European Union, the League of Arab States, the International Maritime Organization and the United Nations Secretariat, are working within the Contact Group to address piracy through maritime and justice system actions.

Countryman said all the participants are bound together by the conviction that joint action — such as sharing best practices and coordinating military, legal and industry tactics — is the best way to fight piracy in the region.

Regaining control

Piracy plagues the waters off of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and the associated disruption of trade and distribution of humanitarian aid is a challenge for the international community.

Seven ships now are being held by pirates, along with 160 crew members. Pirates recently released a fishing vessel from Taiwan that they had held since April 2009. Three crew members from Indonesia and China died during the ordeal.

Crews from Bulgaria, China, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Tuvalu, Ukraine and other nations have been held by pirates at various times.

In the Gulf of Aden, where the international naval vessels are on pirate duty, Countryman said the rate of successful attacks has fallen to nearly zero since the summer of 2009. He attributed the declining success rate of pirate attacks to “ever more effective coordination” among the navies on patrol.

In 2009, he said, international naval personnel came in contact with more than 700 pirates. Often, naval teams boarding pirate ships will confiscate weapons or any other equipment that could be used to pirate a cargo ship, cruise ship or private yacht.

Recent statistics show that 50 pirate attacks against 198 ships succeeded in 2009. In 2008, there were 42 successful attacks on 122 ships. Countryman told reporters at a State Department briefing in Washington February 18 that simple means of deterring pirates — such as using water hoses — have proven to be the most important factor in declining rates of success by pirates in the region.

The anti-piracy effort would benefit from additional ships assigned to the task as well as air assets, which Countryman said would “provide additional warning of potential pirate attacks to ships in the region.”

The U.S. Navy recently assigned three P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft to the Seychelles islands to perform counterpiracy duty.

The United States has been actively pursuing efforts to bring pirates to justice for their criminal activities. It captured 25 pirates and sent 24 for prosecution in Kenya. Another pirate is being prosecuted in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York. Some pirates have been prosecuted and convicted, while others have been prosecuted and freed.

Meanwhile, there are four working groups operating under the Contact Group. The United Kingdom chairs one on military coordination and information sharing. Egypt leads the group on public information. The United States heads a working group to strengthen shipping self-protection. Denmark chairs the fourth working group on judicial issues.

According to Countryman the United States and other nations are trying to draw up clearer guidelines “for what the captain of an individual vessel ought to do” to thwart an onslaught by pirates.

During the most recent Contact Group meeting in New York, INTERPOL announced that it would form its own working group to assist its member nations in deterring pirates.

Greece will chair the next Contact Group meeting in May. Future meetings will be chaired by South Korea and Turkey.

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