WASHINGTON, Mar 6 – Successful pirate attacks off Somalia have dropped sharply this year amid stepped up enforcement, but the longer term outlook remains uncertain, senior US officials said.,
However, the officials told lawmakers the United States has no plans for now to pursue pirates inside Somalia, the source of a surge in attacks on merchant shipping in the Gulf of Aden last year.
"While we sought authority in negotiations for the UN Security Council resolution to any country willing to take it, we do not plan at this time to conduct counter-piracy operations on land," said US Ambassador Stephen Mull, acting under secretary of state for international security.
Mull said seven suspected Somali pirates were transferred to Kenya Thursday for prosecution, the first batch since Washington and Nairobi agreed in mid January on the handling of pirate cases.
Prosecutions are seen as a key to deterring more ship seizures and hostage takings, which pirates have launched with virtual impunity from Somali bases over the past year.
The attacks took off in the last six months of 2008 as Somali pirates targeted ships in the Gulf of Aden, reaping millions of dollars in ransom as the world’s navies looked on.
But Mull told the House Armed Services Committee that the rate of successful pirate attacks off Somalia have plummeted to 17 percent this year, after soaring to 64 percent in October.
"Today there are only six ships held hostage, compared to 14 ships held hostage toward the end of last year," he said.
Bad weather and the pay-out of ransoms to pirates contributed to the decline, but Mull said coordinated diplomatic and military efforts also played an important role.
He said 23 naval vessels from around the world are now patrolling shipping lanes, and shipping companies have adopted practices that make it harder for pirates to seize them.
But Vice Admiral William Gortney, commander of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet, said that although successful attacks have dropped, there has been little let up in attempts by pirates to seize ships.
"The question is, where will we be a year from now? Will we continue to be effective?" Gortney said.
"Will the EU, will NATO, will the other nations continue to be here?" he asked, emphasizing the need for a sustained international efforts and attention.
Any long-term solution will require addressing Somalia’s slide into lawlessness, the officials conceded. But they appeared to rule out direct military action in Somalia, at least for now.
Mull said the United States sought authority from UN Security Council last year to pursue pirates inside Somalia "just to be safe."
"But there are no plans to conduct counter-piracy operations on land," he said.
"None of our other coalition partners as of yet have expressed an intention to do that," he said.
Daniel Pike, the acting director of the Pentagon’s office of African affairs, said that while there was no "intention at this point" to go after pirates inside Somalia, the US Defense Department doesn’t "preclude" doing so in the future.
"In fact, the Defense Department is looking at that, but there is no such intention at this point to advance that," he said.
For now, stepped up naval presence, enhanced counter-piracy authorities and the threat of prosecution appear to be having an effect, Gortney said.
Of about 250 suspected pirates "encountered" by US and other navies, 121 were disarmed and released, and 117 were disarmed and turned over for prosecution, he said. Nine others are awaiting final disposition.
Mull said Kenya has said it would take as many pirates for prosecution as the international community can provide.
Tanzania also has expressed interest in prosecuting pirates, and the United States was exploring that, Mull said.