Unprecedented military cooperation among NATO forces, Russia, China and other countries in the Gulf of Aden has helped decrease the number of pirate attacks on ships off the coast of Somalia in the past year, the State Department said Thursday.
More than 20 countries are now taking part in an international naval force, and the membership of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, formed at the height of successful vessel hijackings last year, has grown from 24 to 47, said Tom Countryman, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
"What is perhaps more impressive is that the melding of United States, European Union, NATO forces, together with individual contributions by a number of other countries, including Russia and China, has been accomplished with a shared mechanism for coordination and de-confliction, and without the need for there to be a supreme commander in charge of the effort," Mr. Countryman said.
"We think it's a good model not only for the Gulf of Aden and the Somali basin, but also for future such endeavors," he told reporters.
The successful attacks on the vessels Maersk Alabama and Liberty Sun last spring focused international attention on the problem, prompting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to direct her department to work with other federal agencies and foreign governments to find "a 21st-century solution to a 17th-century crime."
Since then, the success rate for pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden - the body of water between the Somali and Yemeni coastlines where international naval vessels are concentrated - "has fallen to nearly zero," Mr. Countryman said. There has been "only one successful hijacking in that area since last summer," he added.
However, the success rate for attacks in the southern part of the Somali Basin, which is twice as large as the Gulf of Aden and has limited international presence, "has gone up, as has the absolute number of attempts in that region," he said.
"We are looking into whether there are additional surveillance assets - whether manned or unmanned - that can, from the air, provide additional warning of potential pirate attacks to ships in the region," he said.
James H. Hohenstein, a maritime lawyer and partner at Holland & Knight, a New York law firm, said international efforts to combat piracy "are to be commended," but there is much more to be done if the problem is to be eradicated.
"I don't advocate unilateral U.S. military action - acting in a combined fashion with other countries is much more effective," Mr. Hohenstein said. "Governments should make it clear that their vessels should not be in the area without security measures."
The actual measures, he said, should be up to the companies that own and operate the ships, such as having security guards on board, so they can protect themselves. While actions undertaken by vessel crews should be defensive, naval forces patrolling the waters must be on the offensive in hunting pirates, he added.
Mr. Countryman said "the most cost-effective means of deterring attacks are what ships can do for themselves in terms of having adequate crew to be alert for the early signs of an impending pirate attack" and to take the "diversionary or defense measures that cause the pirates to give up and go seek another target instead."
"The United States Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration have required U.S.-flag vessels to employ these practices when they are delivering food aid or undertaking other commercial voyages in that region, and we think it has worked well," he said. "We hope to see other states that are major flag nations require the same kind of best management practices of their commercial ships that operate in the region."
Mr. Countryman praised Kenya for prosecuting suspected pirates.
"It makes sense, because prosecution in the region has both economic and humanitarian benefits as compared to prosecuting suspected pirates thousands of miles away," he said.
"In addition, it makes sense for the government of Kenya, because the United States and the European Union have contributed significant resources to helping Kenya improve and update its legal, its prosecutorial and judicial system with long-term benefits for the people of Kenya as well," he added.
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