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Should ground troops hunt pirates in Somalia?

A Bush administration proposal to allow foreign forces to go ashore in Somalia to hunt the country's notorious pirates is getting a cool reception from US military leaders, regional analysts, and some Somali officials.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / December 17, 2008

The Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland ventured out to sea from the Kenyan port of Mombasa on Sunday. Somali pirates have hijacked 55 ships this year and secured tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.

Joseph Okanga/Reuters

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NAIROBI, Kenya

A Bush administration proposal to allow foreign forces to go ashore in Somalia to hunt the country's notorious pirates is getting a cool reception from US military leaders, regional analysts, and some Somali officials.

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The proposal – which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to put forward Tuesday at the United Nations Security Council – is the boldest yet aimed at stopping the pirates, who've hijacked 55 ships this year, secured tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, and kneecapped maritime trade between Europe and Asia.

Somalia's long East African coastline is a lawless stretch of empty beaches and mountain hollows, and experts think that foreign forces lack the military intelligence to carry out well-targeted land attacks. They warn that civilian casualties would stoke anti-Western sentiment in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, where powerful Islamist militias are threatening to topple an internationally backed – but desperately weak – interim government.

It's unlikely that American forces would be involved, given the lingering memories of 1993, when a US Black Hawk helicopter was shot down over the Somali capital of Mogadishu, resulting in the deaths of 18 servicemen. The current struggles of a small African Union peacekeeping mission also raise doubts that any country would be willing to send ground forces into Somalia.

"Our intelligence is pretty shaky inside Somalia on a whole bunch of things," said Roger Middleton, a Somalia researcher at Chatham House, a British-based research center. "There's a real danger of arresting fishermen."

One of the Bush administration's last foreign-policy initiatives immediately drew skepticism from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said over the weekend that the United States lacked the military intelligence to carry out a land-based operation. Officials in other countries have suggested that land pursuits could violate international law.

The proposal authorizes countries to take "all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace, to interdict those who are using Somali territory" to plan or conduct piracy, according to a draft resolution circulated at the UN last week.

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