Video: Pirates testing limits of international law

updated 11/19/2008 6:58:27 PM ET 2008-11-19T23:58:27

Somali pirates preying on international ships are also damaging their homeland's battered economy, worsening the instability that opened the door to piracy and inroads by Islamic extremists, the U.N. chief warned Wednesday.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his quarterly report to the U.N. Security Council that the surge in piracy and armed robbery against ships has severely affected trade, worsened the humanitarian crisis and further weakened Somalia's transition government.

Inflation is "unbridled," especially in south-central Somalia where fuel costs soared almost 170 percent and prices for staple foods shot up more than 250 percent in the 12 months through August, Ban said.

He added that piracy has even hurt Somalia's once stable semiautonomous northern region of Puntland, whose currency has lost almost 80 percent of its value in the past year. Much of the piracy is happening off Puntland's coast.

The number of Somalis in need of humanitarian aid has increased 77 percent since January — from 1.8 million to 3.2 million, Ban said.

"If local communities are not empowered with the means to earn a sustainable livelihood in the wake of growing global and local challenges, Somalia will continue to be a potential breeding ground for frustrated extremists — a challenge to its stability, that of the region and the rest of the world," Ban warned.

Country in chaos
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, when clan warlords ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. The current government, formed in 2004 with the help of the U.N., has failed to protect citizens from violence or the country's poverty.

Islamic militants have waged an Iraq-style insurgency against Somali government troops and their Ethiopian allies for almost two years. Nearly daily mortar attacks and gunbattles in and around Mogadishu, the capital, have killed thousands of civilians.

Ban said U.N. experts continue to note violations of a U.N. arms embargo "in an environment of general lawlessness and lack of accountability and has also noted the role of piracy and armed robbery, kidnapping and ransom payments in financing violations by armed groups."

The Security Council is expected to approve a resolution Thursday imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on Somalis and Somali companies and organizations that violate the arms embargo, support acts threatening peace, and impede the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Ban applauded an Oct. 26 cease-fire agreement between the government and some Somali opposition parties, and he welcomed Ethiopia's stated readiness to withdraw its troops to support a truce.

But the agreement did not include any of the Islamic extremists who have denounced any talks with the government and who are behind much of the bloodshed in Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab, the military wing of Somalia's Islamic movement, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization, has not participated in any talks, and Ban said there are indications it may steer "a more radical course."

Call for cease-fire
Ban said Somalis working for the U.N. have been threatened and killed, and he warned of the "growing risk for United Nations staff being targeted in another major terrorist attack in Somalia or at the United Nations office premises in Nairobi," the capital of neighboring Kenya.

To help support the cease-fire agreement, Ban proposed that the current 3,450-strong African Union force be replaced by an international stabilization force with two multinational brigades, one of which could incorporate the AU troops. A brigade has about 3,000 soldiers.

Once there is "a credible, inclusive cease-fire," Ban said, a U.N. force with 22,500 soldiers could take over peacekeeping duties, accompanied by international police and civilians.

For now, the prospect of fighting ending seems very distant and delivering humanitarian aid has become extremely difficult: Ships carrying food and other goods need naval escorts and aid workers on the ground are being targeted, with 29 killed, 19 kidnapped and 10 still held captive, Ban said.

In his report, Ban also addressed the activities of the Somali pirates, saying they are estimated to have been paid between $25 million and $30 million in ransoms. He said about 65 merchant ships were hijacked off the coast of Somalia in the first 10 months of the year.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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