Pursuit of Somali pirates to get hotter

UN allows antipiracy forces to chase them onto land, attack them by air. But Security Council seems unprepared to address the instability that makes Somalia a 'failed state.'

This year alone, pirates off the Somali coast in East Africa have hijacked at least 70 vessels - including the Greek cargo ship Centauri (above) - and extorted more than $150 million in ransom.

The United Nations Security Council has expanded the battle with pirates cruising the crucial shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia by authorizing action against them by air and on land.

The United States hails the step as a victory for global trade and order. Still, the new measures fall short of addressing the root cause of piracy: instability and lawlessness that have racked Somalia for nearly two decades.

The Somalia-based pirates, who reportedly intercepted two more ships as the Security Council deliberated Tuesday, underscore the repercussions for the entire world when failed states go unaddressed – as was the case for the Al Qaeda-associated Islamists who operated in Somalia in the early 1990s.

The Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize countries conducting antipirate naval missions in the waters off Somalia – and that have the interim Somali government's express permission – to pursue pirates onto Somali territory. That authorization will last one year.

At the same time, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who lobbied in person at the UN on behalf of the resolution, announced an American-led contact group on Somali piracy that aims to better coordinate antipiracy actions among countries, international organizations, and the commercial shipping industry. Secretary Rice, noting the lack of coordination among countries battling the pirates, told the council "our response has been less than the sum of its parts."

The US has ships assigned to the task, and the European Union earlier this month launched Operation Atlanta, a naval mission that will put ships from EU-member navies in waters off the Horn of Africa. China, whose cargo vessels have come under attack, said this week it may participate in the global antipiracy effort.

This year alone, pirates off the Somali coast in East Africa have hijacked at least 70 vessels and extorted more than $150 million in ransom. The spectacular rise in piracy off Somalia has made the Gulf of Aden – an economic lifeline used for shipping a substantial portion of the world's oil – the most dangerous waterway on earth, according to the Piracy Reporting Center, part of the International Maritime Bureau.

UN authorization to pursue pirates onto Somali territory – where they find haven in ungoverned ports – provides a new tool for counterpiracy efforts. It does little, though, to address conditions that allow pirates to flourish.

"Piracy is a symptom," Rice said, "of the instability, the poverty, the lawlessness that have plagued Somalia for the past two decades."

The Security Council and the broader international community seem unprepared to address the problems that make Somalia a failed state.

The US had hinted that it would seek the creation of a UN peacekeeping force for Somalia, to head off a slide into deeper chaos there. But stiff opposition, in particular from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, led the US to shelve the idea – although Rice suggested that the US may ask the Security Council to create such a force before year's end.

Mr. Ban's resistance to the US proposal stems from the fact that he can find no UN members willing to lead what would be a dangerous and complicated mission.

"The secretary-general has made it clear that he's spoken with 50 different countries and three different agencies, and so far not one of them has volunteered to lead such a force," says a UN official in Ban's office, speaking on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss hurdles to the American proposal. "Everybody seems to agree that we've got to bell the cat, but no one wants to step forward and actually do it."

Absent a full-fledged UN peacekeeping force, Ban is seeking greater international financial backing for the existing African Union force tasked with securing crucial sea and air ports. Ban says Somalia simply is not secure enough to send in a peacekeeping force. Rice counters that the Somalia situation "is why the UN has a peacekeeping department" and says the African Union force could be "rehatted" with UN blue helmets and expanded to handle the situation.

Besides the piracy problem, the prospect that Somalia may soon deteriorate further is prompting a sense of urgency. Ethiopia says it will withdraw its troops, which have brought a semblance of order and helped to prop up Somalia's weak interim government – by the end of the year. That would leave the undermanned African Union force as perhaps the last barrier to the fall of Somalia to radical Islamists.

The Al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab insurgent group has been gaining strength as the Somali people chafe at what they see, increasingly, as an Ethiopian occupation. The number of foreign Islamists in Somalia is rising, warn Africa and extremism experts, raising the specter of an Islamist takeover. "Osama bin Laden and his organization have had influence in Somalia before," says the UN official, "so there's real reason for concern that a further deterioration in Somalia's governability could mean a return of that influence, and rather fast."

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