WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is unlikely to attack Somali pirate bases on land due to the risk of civilian deaths but it may help local authorities fight the scourge, a senior U.S. defense official said on Monday.
Somali gangs have captured dozens of ships and earned tens of millions of dollars in ransom, pushing the issue up the U.S. security agenda, particularly after pirates tried to hijack a U.S.-flagged ship with an American crew this month.
The brief seizure of the Maersk Alabama and the subsequent hostage drama involving the ship's captain have led to calls from lawmakers in Washington and former military officers for U.S. forces to attack the pirates' base camps on land.
But U.S. officials are wary of any action that could kill civilians and lead the pirates to seek common cause with Islamist militants such as Somalia's al-Shabab group.
"We are not really looking at, from a U.S. standpoint, doing anything on land," the senior defense official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"These base camps are located, co-located essentially, with villages so the potential for collateral damage is significant."
Asked about the possibility of air strikes, the official said "never say never," but they were unlikely for the same reasons. The United States has used air strikes in the past to target Islamist militants in lawless Somalia.
The solution to the Somali piracy scourge involved many elements, the official said. They included more effort by shipping companies to protect their vessels and possible U.S. assistance to the semi-autonomous northern Somali region of Puntland.
Puntland, where most of the pirates' base camps are located, has a small coast guard which is not very effective and the United States is considering whether it could provide help to beef up that force, the official said.
Another problem posed by piracy is how and where to prosecute those responsible.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday the release of pirates by NATO forces over the weekend sent the wrong signal to the Somali gangs.
"We are going to have to determine the best way to bring pirates to justice after they are captured and there will have to be additional discussion of this at NATO as well," she said.
Last week, Clinton said the United States would also explore ways to track and seize pirates' assets.
The U.S. defense official said the United States had gained a greater understanding in recent months of how pirate operations were financed using a model adapted from camel raiding.
Investors funded the raids and provided money to supply the pirates and their captives while the hijacked vessels were held close to shore and ransom talks took place, the official said.
"One of the ways to impact (the problem) is to go after the investors," the official said. "There's not that many of them ... They're probably moving around in major capitals -- Europe, the Middle East."
More naval vessels would not solve the problem and the shipping industry had to do more, the official said.
Shipping firms are reluctant to place armed guards on their vessels but the official said measures such as surrounding a ship's deck with barbed wire or keeping slow, easy-to-board ships away from the area off Somalia could be effective.
"Industry is still looking for an external solution and not looking at itself," the official said. "There is going to be more talk about how to a certain extent this piracy wound has become self-inflicted," added the official.
Hopes that Somalia would become prosperous and stable enough to make piracy an unattractive option were unrealistic, the official said.
"The solution just isn't in more navy vessels and certainly, not in the short term, it's not in trying to make Somali fishermen, you know, middle class with satellite TV and that kind of stuff," the official said.
Editing by Chris Wilson