Twenty-four nations pledged Wednesday at a U.S.-led meeting to better coordinate their efforts against Somali piracy in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Diplomats met privately at U.N. headquarters for the first time to talk about how to fight the rise of piracy off Somalia's lawless coastline, where 11 vessels with 210 crew members are now in pirate hands.
"So much of this is synchronization and adding on to the great work that our sailors from, at this point, 16 different nations on the water are conducting," the group's chairman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Mark Kimmitt, told reporters after the nearly day-long meeting.
"We believe that 2009 will be a year where we can turn this problem around if we come together as a group of nations, working not simply the military aspect, but the judicial aspect, the financial aspect, the industry aspect," he said.
Former Somali fishermen
Kimmitt, who deals with political-military affairs, told reporters that so far, officials have found "no links" showing that the pirates are working for any established terrorist groups. Most are believed to be former Somali fishermen.
But during the closed-door meeting, Kimmitt said there is "a sense, not fully developed" among U.S. counter-piracy officials that there should be more focus on where the money is coming from to finance the pirates' operations.
He suggested that pirates might be receiving financing by "external" or some other "private groups" that are helping pay for intelligence, logistics, GPS and communications devices.
"That is one of the questions that is being asked," he told the other diplomats, adding that the U.S. is not yet able to make a judgment about it. "This is not just a group of young men. ... There may be some financing of that group."
The meeting in a half-full conference room also was presided over by representatives of Yemen, Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Spain and Somalia. The diplomats discussed forming a "working group" but several said it would need a mandate first to determine whether sensitive information, such as currency serial numbers and bank transactions, would be swapped.
Kimmitt told reporters that the so-called "Contact Group on Somali Piracy" was formed "because we believe not only as individual nations, but as a collective body that we can do more to interrupt, interdict, disrupt piracy in the Gulf of Aden."
He said the group was meeting in accordance with a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted unanimously in December which extended the authorization for countries to pursue pirates in Somalia's territorial waters to land and air attacks on pirate bases on the coast of the Horn of Africa country.
"We have been charged by the Security Council to take this on as an urgent matter," Kimmitt said.
More attacks expected
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on hand in December to push through the resolution in one of President George W. Bush's last major foreign policy initiatives.
In a statement, the group warned that the number of pirate attacks on shipping vessels — more than 100 last year, including at least 40 actual "seizures" — is "expected to increase without enhanced international efforts."
It promised to meet again in March, report back regularly to the Security Council and to consider the creation of a regional anti-piracy information center, as suggested by the council in its resolution.
Somalia's lack of a functioning government since 1991 has made it a haven for pirates, whose large ransoms — a total of $30 million last year — represent about the only booming industry in the impoverished nation.
Somali pirates have been evading an international naval flotilla to intercept huge tankers, freighters and other ships to hold for ransom off the nation's 1,880-mile coastline, but Kimmitt said those naval efforts have made a difference.
"The probability of being pirated in this region is under 1 percent, and of those that are attacked, less than 50 percent last year actually were boarded and taken as hostage," he said. In the last 90 days, he added, "only one in five pirate attacks were successful in taking hostages. But that's still not good enough."