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U.S. weighs options to combat piracy

The United States is considering new strategies in the aftermath of the high-seas hostage drama, including adding Navy gunships along the Somali coastline and launching a campaign to disable pirate "mother ships."
/ Source: The Associated Press

The United States is considering new strategies in the aftermath of the high-seas hostage drama, including adding Navy gunships along the Somali coastline and launching a campaign to disable pirate "mother ships."

The rescue of an American hostage and the killing of three Somali pirates by Navy SEAL snipers also increases pressure on U.S. and international leaders to use newly granted authority to hunt pirates on land, where they plan and nurture attacks.

One day after his direct order allowing military force ended in success, President Barack Obama committed the United States to "halt the rise of piracy" without saying exactly how his administration and allies would do so. While stopping short of a pledge to eradicate piracy, the new U.S. president added the lawlessness off the coast of Africa to a lengthy must-fix list that already includes two wars and a struggling economy.

"We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise, and we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes," Obama said.

U.S. officials privately outlined several options Monday, even as the Pentagon cautioned that the solution to the piracy scourge won't come at the point of a gun.

Obama and other U.S. leaders pledged a hard look at Washington's options following the piracy drama that ended Sunday with the freeing of an American cargo ship captain. Somali pirates say they will retaliate for the killing of three of the pirates holding captain Richard Phillips, and one pirate told The Associated Press that Americans are now enemy No. 1.

Pentagon's role questioned
Military officials said the precision of Sunday's rescue may be a testament to the skill of the U.S. military, but it should not become a rationale for a major expansion of the Pentagon's role in what is fundamentally a criminal problem, military officials said.

One official said bluntly that piracy is a crime, not an act of war or even terrorism. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made, including about whether to expand or change the military's current role in fighting piracy.

Defense officials, speaking under the same terms for the same reason, said planners will examine whether Navy ships could or should escort or otherwise expand the protection they provide to private U.S. commercial ships along the Somali coast. The U.S. has already committed several ships to an international patrol force.

There are too many commercial ships and too few military ones to provide full escorts, and additional U.S. or international warships would probably be a temporary response.

As Somali pirates have become bolder and more sophisticated they have begun to capture more and larger vessels for use as "mother ships" or mobile command and supply centers. Navy officials theorize that was the goal of the attack on the Maersk Alabama, which would have been the largest prize yet for the pirates.

Any new strategies at sea will have to take the mother ships into account, officials said, perhaps with new authority to hunt for them.

U.S. officials are looking for things they can do unilaterally and in concert with other nations to buttress a loose strategy of seaborne patrols. The top Navy official in the region acknowledged Sunday that the current strategy isn't working.

Multi-national solution urged
Military officials and diplomats said any real solution would involve several nations and must focus as much on the collapsed economy and government structure in Somalia as on the explosion of increasingly sophisticated piracy near the Horn of Africa.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered a wide review of military options on Monday, said his spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said piracy will be a top priority for the administration in the weeks ahead, even as he called the dramatic rescue a "textbook" success story.

"I think we're going to end up spending a fair amount of time on this in the administration, seeing if there is a way to try and mitigate this problem of piracy," Gates told about 30 students and faculty members at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Virginia, according to a U.S. military news service.

He added: "All I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the situation room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem."

Nonmilitary responses include greater coordination among nations trying to help stabilize the weak, ineffectual Somali government and provide economic options beyond the ransoming of foreign cargo crews.

A 24-nation response group on Somali piracy, formed under United Nations auspices, is likely to meet soon to discuss a recent spike in hostage-taking.

"We're going to be looking at a number of options and mechanisms," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Monday.

"We clearly have an issue in this region right now — piracy — and we need to work cooperatively with a whole host of countries as best we can to prevent these things from happening," Wood said. "This is not something we're going to be able to solve overnight, but I think we've got some steps in place."