In Talks On Piracy, Few Ideas For Somalia Fix

Officials from some 25 nations gathered in Bahrain for a security conference that included discussions about the booming piracy business in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. No one seemed to be offering a workable strategy for fixing what many agreed is the root of the problem, the failed state of Somalia.

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Leaders from around the world are escalating their responses to pirates off Somalia's coast. Yesterday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to authorize attacks against pirates, both by air and on land. China is considering sending warships to the Gulf of Aden where ships from the U.S. and other countries are already patrolling. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Bahrain where international leaders met this past weekend.

PETER KENYON: Military intelligence and diplomatic officials from 25 countries gathered here to discuss a range of security concerns, including the booming business of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. So far, the most aggressive action has come from the Indian navy, which captured 23 pirates last weekend. Sanjaya Baru, former spokesman for the Indian prime minister, says the pirates need to know that their days of acting with impunity are numbered. But that will only happen if states jump into the murky legal waters of prosecuting pirates.

Dr. SANJAYA BARU (Former Spokesman to the Prime Minister of India): If it's in the territorial waters of sovereign governments, they must act. Now, the Indian navy will act if local navies don't act, because you need a policeman.

KENYON: But India's own experience raises doubts about such tough talk. Take the 23 pirates the Indian navy just captured. Twelve reportedly are Somali and 11 are Yemeni. Not sure what it can do with the prisoners, India is trying to get Yemen to take all 23. Many analysts say a desperately poor and strife-ridden country such as Yemen is hardly an ideal candidate to lead the anti-piracy movement. Yemen's deputy foreign minister, Ali Muthana Hassan, welcomed international help on the piracy issue, but he offered no specific commitments on Yemen's behalf.

Dr. ALI MUTHANA HASSA (Deputy Foreign Minister, Yemen): Nobody knows up to know how can we deal with this topic of dealing with the pirates, but we will join the international community in whatever decision is taken.

KENYON: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been hearing a lot about the need for tougher military action against the pirates. He told the Bahrain conference that more will be done, but he also had rather scathing comments for shipping companies, declaring that most vessels in the Gulf of Aden had the same capability as the cruise ship that recently avoided seizure by simply outrunning the pirates.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): The first and most significant thing that can be done is for the owners of the ships to give instructions to their captains to do minimally intelligent things, like speed up when the pirates come along, and second, pull up the ladders...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Secretary GATES: You know, this isn't rocket science.

KENYON: But such breezy condemnations don't alter the fact that most shipping companies have no desire to arm themselves, although a few are in talks with private security firms to add armed guards to some ships. Even military officials who were pressing the shippers to do more aren't recommending anything beyond light weapons on commercial vessels. As for military ground operations, or even air strikes, Gates said the current U.S. intelligence isn't clear enough on who's behind the piracy to allow a carefully targeted strike.

Secretary GATES: I have read in places that there are actually two or three families, or extended clans in Somalia, that account for a substantial amount of this piracy. If we can identify who those clans are, then we can potentially target them and do so in a way that minimizes hurting innocent people in Somalia.

KENYON: Several officials both here and at the United Nations have said that the piracy boom is just one symptom of 17 years of Somalia as a failed state. So far, no nation has offered a workable plan for re-establishing the rule of law there, and the U.N. has been content to leave the matter to the struggling African Union. Critics worry that world leaders are looking for ways to protect commercial shipping without dealing with the chaos that is present day Somalia. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Bahrain.

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