- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

A security threat as old as the republic itself - pirates - is generating interest on Capitol Hill.

Top Defense and State Department officials told lawmakers that the U.S. Navy and a coalition of allies have curbed but not eliminated a growing threat of pirates preying on international shipping lines off the coast of Somalia. Boarding attacks spiked last summer, leaving shippers scurrying to beef up protection along one of the world’s key shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.

But Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, head of the U.S. Central Command fleet headquartered in Bahrain, said stopping the pirate attacks entirely will depend on efforts to build a working government in the failed state of Somalia.

“Ultimately, piracy is a problem that starts ashore and requires an international solution ashore,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

“We made this clear at the outset of our efforts - we cannot guarantee safety in this vast region,” he said.

Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, called the surge in pirate attacks “disturbing,” suggesting the administration push for an “international counterpiracy league” under the auspices of the United Nations.

“Until recently, piracy seemed a thing of the past - part of the stories we tell our children or part of the history lessons about the Barbary Pirates or Blackbeard. Recent events in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, however, make this very much a current and important issue for American national security,” Mr. Skelton said.

With private shipping lines readily paying large ransom fees to rescue their crews and vessels, the piracy surge included spectacular raids such as the November capture of the huge Saudi crude oil tanker Sirius Star. The ship was released Jan. 10 after ransom payment was made by air drop.

In a second episode that stunned international security experts, Somalian pirates in September captured a Belize-flagged Ukrainian cargo ship off the coast of Kenya laden with tanks, grenade launchers and ammunition reportedly bound for a rebel faction in Sudan’s civil war. The boat was freed after the owners paid a $3.2 million ransom.

Somali pirates this week released an Egyptian ship seized more than two months ago carrying a cargo of fertilizer.

Adm. Gortney said an estimated 123 merchant sailors are now being held hostage by the Somalian clans that dominate the piracy activity.

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