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Standoff with Somali pirates shows limits of naval response

Military options could only make things worse, some analysts say, if they did not go hand in hand with political solutions.

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The Maersk Alabama, which is carrying food aid for Uganda and Somalia, is now on its way to its original destination, Mombasa port in Kenya. It is expected to arrive by Sunday night.

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As more warships make their way to the area, they can only sit and watch as negotiations continue for the release of Captain Phillips, the first American snatched by pirates in 200 years. On Thursday, FBI negotiators were brought in to help.

The standoff gives President Barack Obama a foreign policy dilemma as his administration weighs the options for tackling piracy.

Rashid Abdi Sheikh, Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, says using military options could only make things worse if they did not go hand-in-hand with political solutions.

“Most of these pirates are operating from the region of Puntland, which is essentially a failed state within a failed state,” he says.

“Nothing will change until we see more stability on land.”

For the time being, though, sending warships remains the preferred strategy rather than sending cash to a government headed by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed - chased from Mogadishu just over two years ago when he was one of two leaders of Somalia’s Islamic Courts.

Once pirates have taken control of a vessel, though, the warships are often powerless to intervene. Negotiated settlements offer less risk of harming the crew.

Instead the warships are there to deter attacks where possible.

Last year the United Nations Security Council adopted an American-drafted resolution allowing countries to pursue Somali pirates on land as well as at sea.

The US has launched missile strikes against Islamist targets in the past two years and officials have suggested the same strategy could be used to knock out pirate havens.

But Bruno Schiemsky, a military analyst in Nairobi who monitors Somalia, said the strategy was unworkable without much better intelligence.

“What are they going to do? It’s not as if you can put a missile on the head of each pirate. You’d have to take out entire towns or villages.”

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