NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Reuters) - The fight against piracy must involve efforts on land and at sea, the U.S. Navy’s top officer said on Monday, saying the issue was more complex than just putting arms on commercial ships.
“Pirates don’t live at sea. They live ashore. They move their money ashore. You can’t have a discussion about eradicating piracy without having a discussion about the shore dimension,” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead told reporters after a speech at a Navy League conference.
He said the area off the coast of Somalia was four times the size of Texas and there were complex legal issues involved. He said it was also not clear that the shipping industry wanted to begin using armed convoys to protect ships against pirates.
Heavily armed pirates from virtually lawless Somalia have increasingly struck merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden, capturing dozens of vessels and hundreds of hostages and making off with millions of dollars in ransoms.
U.S. Navy commandos shot and killed three gunmen last month to free Richard Phillips, the U.S. ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates. A fourth suspected pirate was arrested and brought to the United States for trial.
His kidnapping prompted several U.S. lawmakers to call for putting U.S. military forces on board commercial vessels, a measure opposed by the Pentagon.
U.S. officials have called for a coordinated international effort to fight piracy, including new strategies to prosecute and imprison pirates, track and freeze their monetary assets and secure the release of ships still held in the region.
Roughead said there was more to fighting pirates than apprehending them at sea, noting that a combined sea and shore approach had helped curb pirate attacks in the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Piracy in the Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, became so serious that in 2005 the Joint War Committee of the Lloyd’s Market Association added the area to its list of war risk zones, sending insurance premiums sharply higher.
Concerted efforts by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore helped slash the number of attacks in that region.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters after a speech at the conference that he did not support putting arms on commercial ships and that it was up to merchant ships to pay for their own protection.
“I am not a proponent of putting arms on anything,” Mullen said, adding commercial shippers could hire private security, but did not want to “because it costs them too much money.”
Mullen said the ships plagued by piracy accounted for just about 1 percent of all ships, and combating piracy was not his top priority. He said one analysis had shown it would take 1,000 ships to effectively fight piracy, more than the U.S. Navy fleet. “I’ve got a big globe. I don’t have 1,000 ships that I can devote to that,” he said.
Mullen also said the issue was ultimately larger than just piracy. “It’s about Somalia and it’s about a future safe haven, and it’s about what the international community is going to do with respect to Somalia, among other things.”
Acting U.S. Maritime Administrator James Caponiti, who oversees the U.S. merchant marine, told the conference he opposed arming merchant seamen to counter pirates.
Caponiti noted many foreign ports do not allow sailors to carry weapons or bring them into port. He said ships should consider carrying qualified private security teams instead.
U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said an high-level inter-agency group begun under the previous Bush administration was continuing to work on anti-piracy measures; a new maritime “code of conduct” should be out shortly.
He also called for greater efforts to prosecute pirates “and put them away.”
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Gerald E. McCormick