MOMBASA, Kenya — As the American skipper once held hostage by pirates reached dry land here Thursday aboard a U.S. warship and his 19-man crew received a heroes' welcome in the U.S., the source of the piracy plague in the Indian Ocean — Somalia — said it could help fight the problem.
Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke told McClatchy that aggressive actions by foreign navies — such as Sunday's high-seas U.S. Navy assault that freed ship captain Richard Phillips after five days in captivity — could at best be a stopgap measure against piracy. Its roots are on Somali soil, he said, and the Somali government, though desperately weak, could attack pirate bases and money networks with a little more financial help from foreign donors.
"We have information on how they do business," Sharmarke said of eight pirate "cartels" that Somali officials had identified. "We can stop them before they go into the water."
Somalis, traditionally suspicious of foreign intervention, are nonetheless growing angry at the rise in piracy off its shores, which has refocused attention on the failings of a country that hasn't had a functioning government since 1991. Somali leaders have tried to walk a fine line between expressing regret at the surge in pirate attacks and mourning the killings of Phillips' three Somali captors by Navy sharpshooters from the destroyer USS Bainbridge.
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"We hope that the scourge of piracy can be eliminated from Somalia, so we don't have to suffer any further losses," Sharmarke said in a statement released by U.S. officials in Kenya.
A fourth captor, who came aboard the USS Bainbridge hours before the Navy assault, has been transferred to an undisclosed location, according to the Pentagon's Central Command. The youth, who reportedly gave his age as both 16 and 19, could be tried in U.S. court with "piracy under the law of nations," which fetches a mandatory sentence of life in prison; and conspiracy, kidnapping and destruction of U.S. vessels, which carry penalties from 10 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors could assert so-called universal jurisdiction over crimes committed outside U.S. boundaries, and even if he's 16, the youth could still be tried as an adult with a judge's approval. Officials wouldn't specify if or when he might be brought to the U.S. or whether they'll seek the most serious of charges.
Many agree that piracy has to be fought on land — deploying hulking warships to ward off the pirates' speedboats is a little like trying to kill a mosquito with a bazooka — but analysts questioned the wisdom of pouring more money into a Somali government that doesn't control much territory and has been unable to train or equip its own security force.
The current stab at a government is backed by the United Nations and claims a 10,000-man security force. But in the face of a raging Islamist-led insurgency in the south — which isn't connected to the northern-based pirates — the Somali army has been dogged by low morale, low pay and desertions.
So analysts are skeptical about Sharmarke's proposal to carve out a 3,000-strong "rapid response" anti-piracy force from that ragtag army.
"You have a conglomeration of various people with arms who have been brought together. There isn't a functional government force," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert with the International Crisis Group research agency.
"So any talk of a Somali security solution to this . . . is premature."
The skepticism reflects the lack of good options to stop Somali piracy, which has surged in recent weeks with attempted hijackings on more than two dozen vessels in April, according to U.S. military officials. Navies from more than a dozen countries — including the U.S., France and Germany — have deployed in the Indian Ocean and launched increasingly aggressive actions as pirates seize more vessels.
The Liberty Sun, an American cargo vessel carrying food aid for African nations, reached Mombasa early Thursday after surviving a rocket attack by pirates. Hours before that attack, French forces captured 11 pirates in a raid on a suspected pirate "mother ship" 500 miles off the coast of Somalia.
Some pirate groups have attacked ships that belong to their countrymen. Hussein Mohamed Ali, a businessman who ships cargo between Dubai and the Somali capital of Mogadishu, has had shipments hijacked and was once forced to pay a ransom.
"The Somali pirates are gangs, and they deserve to be killed," Ali said.
In Mogadishu, FM radio stations have begun airing anti-piracy messages and some Muslim clerics are preaching that piracy is un-Islamic.
In Puntland, the semi-autonomous northern region of Somalia where the pirates operate bases, powerful clan elders oppose the pirate groups. In the village of Lasqoray, where pirates are holding three seized ships for ransom, clan elder Garad Ali Farah said local residents would cooperate with Somali officials if asked to reveal information about the whereabouts of pirates.
"We have come to know that if we allow pirates to do whatever they want, Somalia will be seized by foreigners," Farah said.
Less clear is if Puntland authorities, some of whom are allied with the pirates, would cooperate, Abdi said. Puntland has grown increasingly estranged from the southern-based government since Abdullahi Yusuf, a longtime Puntland warlord-turned-politician, resigned as president in December.
Regional leaders are once again floating the idea of seceding, Abdi said. Without the backing of Puntland officials, a government anti-piracy force could face difficulties.
"To try to equip an army that isn't there, to operate in hostile terrain — it's not practical at the moment," he said. "The solution has to come from within Puntland itself."
(Marisa Taylor in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Ahmednor Mohamed in Somalia also contributed to this article.)
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