- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2008

JOHANNESBURG

A breakaway region of Somalia with a name that is bound to confuse outsiders - Somaliland - plans to offer its harbor on the Gulf of Aden as a base for U.S., British and Indian warships to battle pirates.

In the process, Somaliland hopes to raise its international profile and ultimately advance its campaign to become an independent nation that is recognized worldwide.

“This crisis is not going to go away by itself, but we can solve it,” Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin told The Washington Times by telephone.

“We will place the deep-water port of Berbera at the disposal of the U.S., British, Indian and other navies, but our [proposal] goes well beyond that,” Mr. Kahin said.

Somaliland consists of the northern leg of Somalia, which was cobbled together from former British and Italian colonies.

Somaliland declared independence from a dysfunctional Somali government in 1991. Since then, it has stayed out of the international spotlight.

It avoided the famine and violence that first made Somalia a household name with the 1992-93 U.S. invasion. It also remained unaffected by the near-takeover by the rest of the country by Islamic militants, which prompted an invasion by Ethiopian troops in 2006.

Mr Kahin said now is not the time to discuss sovereignty for Somaliland.

“The piracy problem is far greater in the short term than any talk of flags and embassies,” he said.

He said he has no doubt that recognition will eventually come to Somaliland, as it did for Kosovo, the Balkan enclave that gained independence earlier this year.

“But unless we are bold in our approach to this undeclared war at sea, sooner or later we will have a tragedy,” Mr. Kahin said.

The proposal being developed by the government of Somaliland will recommend cooperation among key stakeholders, including the United States, and will center on the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden’s coast at the entrance to the Red Sea.

Mr. Kahin said his government had yet to finalize the strategy and make a formal submission to other countries, but that preliminary plans include five main points:

• Berbera would be the hub of operations, given that it is close to the affected area and large enough to host the vessels being used to fight the pirates.

• The port would be available as a “safe house” to any vessel - merchant, military or private - whose captain believed his ship was vulnerable to attack. Naval vessels would be welcome to escort these craft in and out of the harbor.

• Somaliland would help set up a pool of shared intelligence with other nations whose ships were at risk.

• Somaliland would receive and hold captured pirates pending their prosecution or extradition. International prosecutors, human rights groups and lawyers to defend the pirates would have access to the prisoners.

• Somaliland would seek help in setting up a 24-hour early warning system that would alert all shipping in the area when pirates were active.

A U.S. State Department official declined to comment on the proposal. The official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution, said the United States continues to search for the most effective way to end pirate attacks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to urge the U.N. Security Council this week to approve a U.S.-backed resolution that would authorize attacks on pirate bases on land and air, as well as by sea.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told a regional security forum in Bahrain on Saturday that the commercial shipping industry could do more to protect itself.

“Companies and ships must be more vigilant about staying within approved traffic corridors,” he said.

Commercial ships also should “speed up” and try to outrun pirates and “pull up the ladders,” so pirates cannot board. “This is not rocket science,” Mr. Gates said.

At the same time, Mr. Gates said, the United States does not have enough intelligence to pinpoint and attack the “two or three families or clans in Somalia that account for most of this activity.”

Pirates have attacked about 100 ships this year and captured about half, including a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of oil. The pirates, estimated to number about 1,500, are thought to have made more than $30 million in ransom payments, according to an estimate by the Associated Press.

On Saturday, the Indian navy said it captured 23 pirates who threatened one freighter, and a German military helicopter chased away pirate speedboats threatening to attack another freighter.

Mr. Kahin stressed that the plan would be in addition to operations already in place across the region.

“We are not taking anything away from the huge effort already made by our friends in Kenya, India, the European Union and the U.S., along with some of our neighbors,” he said. “But we have unique advantages in Somaliland, notably that of language and location. We speak the same Somali language as the pirates and they operate in our back yard.”

Most of the pirates are based in another Somali enclave known as Puntland, which lies between Somaliland and the war-ravaged south - where Ethiopian troops prop up a pro-Western government in Baidoa, and Islamic militants control just about everything else, including the nominal capital of Mogadishu.

In colonial times, Berbera was a vital link in a chain of ports that allowed the British Royal Navy to dominate the sea route to India. Somaliland has 450 miles of coast facing the Gulf of Aden.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union developed close ties with the region and used Berbera as a naval and missile base. The runway - one of the longest in the world - was built by the United States as an emergency landing strip for the space shuttle.

After independence in 1960, the former British Somaliland joined voluntarily the Italian-ruled Somali territory to the south, creating the republic of Somalia. In 1991, after years of civil war, an interim administration revoked the union and declared itself the Republic of Somaliland.

No country has formally recognized the new nation, but most nations in Africa, along with the U.S. and much of Europe, offer standard diplomatic courtesy to visiting members of the government based in its capital, Hargeisa.

• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Bahrain.

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