updated 12/16/2008 7:38:48 PM ET 2008-12-17T00:38:48

The Dutch sailors aboard a warship scanned the waters off Somalia for an entire month, but they never once saw a pirate — nor fired their weapons except for target practice.

The ship they protected was able to bring tons of food aid to desperate Somalis, but the sailors acknowledge there will never be enough military escorts to protect the 20,000 ships that traverse the Gulf of Aden every year.

"I really think we are doing a lot, but the coast of Africa is very big and long," Sailor 1st Class Mike Savelkoul said from the bridge of the frigate De Ruyter.

Pirates have made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom this year, seizing more than 40 vessels off Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline. Fourteen ships remain held, along with more than 250 crew members, according to maritime officials.

This year's attacks have included a wider range of targets, too: Last month pirates seized a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude.

But the pirates are steering clear of the few ships under naval guard. There are three NATO and Russian vessels and up to 15 other warships from a multinational force patrolling the area, along with a number of U.S. Navy ships.

Some of the warships have succeeded in stopping pirate attacks and they are effective at escorting vital shipments like those for the U.N.'s food agency. Still, NATO and the U.S. Navy say they can't be everywhere, and American officials have urged ships to hire private security.

By land, sea and air
The United States is also proposing that the solution to piracy lies not only at sea, but on land. It wants to track the pirates there and in Somali air space with cooperation from the Horn of Africa country's weak U.N.-backed government.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a U.S.-backed resolution proposing that all nations and regional groups cooperating with Somalia's government in the fight against piracy and armed robbery "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia."

But senior U.S. military officials have questioned the wisdom of launching attacks against Somali pirates on land, saying there is no quick and easy military solution to a complex international problem.

It is difficult to identify pirates, and the potential for killing innocent civilians "cannot be overestimated," said U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, who commands the Navy's 5th Fleet, which has ships patrolling off the Somali coast.

Others say the solution to piracy lies in a strong Somali government and an end to the country's anarchy. There has been no effective central government in nearly 20 years, and bandits have taken advantage of the country's lawlessness to launch their attacks.

Andrew Mwangura, the head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, which monitors piracy in the region, said military solutions will ultimately fail unless the international community addresses poverty in Somalia.

"We don't have to waste money in military buildups. Let's look at the root cause," Mwangura said.

Breakdown in government
Today, radical Islamists control most of the country's south, meting out lashings and stonings for accused criminals. Life expectancy is 46 years; a quarter of children die before they reach 5.

Somali pirates are well-funded, well-organized and have easy access to heavy weapons in a country that has been in tatters for nearly two decades. Pirates use satellite navigational and communications equipment, and have an intimate knowledge of local waters. They clamber aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.

It also helps the pirates that their prey are usually massive, slow-moving ships, such as the Saudi oil supertanker that was hijacked in November.

By the time anyone notices, pirates will have grappled their way onto the ship, brandishing AK-47s.

On warships, however, teams work in shifts all day and night on the lookout for suspicious vessels on their radar.

The 173 crew members on board the De Ruyter take turns being on the lookout at the rear and front of the warship. Others work in shifts to monitor the radar and other systems to spot pirates and gather information such as sea and weather conditions.

But even the De Ruyter's Dutch commanding officer, Cmdr. Peter Reesink, says the solution ultimately lies on Somali soil.

"The whole piracy situation can exist basically due to the security situation in Somalia," Reesink said. "There's no normal government in place. There is no policing institution in place."

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

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