- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

LONDON (AP) - President Barack Obama and the U.S. military drew high praise Monday for the liberation of an American sea captain held by Somali pirates, but some military experts fear the fatal shooting of three pirates will lead to an escalation of the conflict off Somalia’s coast.

They warn that pirate attacks will not end with the freedom of Capt. Richard Phillips and may turn more violent now that the world’s most powerful military has used skilled snipers to kill pirates.

There is no sign of an international consensus about how best to deal with the bandits. Some countries are willing to pay ransom to free their nationals, while France and the United States have staged attacks against pirates instead.

“I think now they (pirates) might be a little more careful about taking vessels which have an American or French flag,” Crispian Cuss, a security analyst from London’s risk mitigation Olive Group.

“I’ve heard a lot of criticism about how this is your typical American, gung-ho, over-the-top reaction, which I think in part unfair,” Cuss said, noting that the French have three times “resolved these instances by force.”

Some military strategists believe it may ultimately be necessary to attack the pirates’ base in Somalia, much as the British did two centuries ago. But few have the appetite for a land operation in Somalia, where a U.S. military foray in the early 1990s ended in humiliation. And the cost in civilian casualties would likely be extremely high, some warn.

“That would be nuts,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent and State Department counterterrorism specialist. “These people are not organized into any military force _ they are intermingled with women and children. You’re talking about wiping out villages.”

He said the U.S. action and a French attack a few days earlier on a pirate-held yacht with hostages on board were corrective measures that did not solve the underlying problem.

“When you allow a bunch of Somali clans to grab their weapons and head to sea and collect millions of dollars in ransom, you can’t be surprised when it gets out of control,” he said. “You need an international coalition, with all the countries that have flag ships, to make it impossible for the pirates to get in a boat and leave the shore. Otherwise the ships will continue to be sitting ducks.”

Johnson has in the past criticized Obama as inexperienced, but he said the new commander in chief deserves credit for using established national security procedures to deal with the crisis while refraining from making comments that would have inflamed the situation.

“He stepped back and let the professionals do what they are supposed to do,” Johnson said. “Since the 1980s we’ve built national security doctrine for how to handle these matters, and Obama allowed these procedures to operate.”

“Obama has won the respect of his allies,” said Robert Fox, defense correspondent for London’s Evening Standard newspaper. “It was very decisive, very high-risk, and it could have gone badly wrong. But it’s an escalation, and it shows that this really is a permanent problem, not just a colorful story, and it will take a substantial amount of work.”

Fox said the U.S. government was now pressing Europe’s governments to step up surveillance efforts and do more to fight pirates. He said more action would be needed to “clean out” pirate enclaves.

Charles Heyman, a defense specialist and former British army officer, said the Obama administration showed its resolve by refusing to pay ransom for Phillips’ release.

“That would have been disastrous,” he said. “America would have been a laughingstock and we really don’t need that.”

But he said history shows pirates can only be defeated if nations unite, which is not happening.

“As long as governments don’t come together and defeat it, it goes on like a plague,” he said. “People have to be very, very tough with this.”

Although the U.S. rescue effort was a clear success in tactical terms, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, warned that it could lead to increased violence in the region.

Family members of some of the 228 foreign nationals still held hostage on other pirate vessels worried about reprisals against their loved ones after the deadly U.S. and French assaults.

“Those released are lucky, but what about those who remain captive?” said Vilma de Guzman, the wife of Filipino seaman Ruel de Guzman, who has been held by pirates since November along with 22 other Filipino crewmen.

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