WASHINGTON (NNS) -- The root cause of maritime piracy resides on land, and halting it requires an international solution, the Defense Department's head of African Affairs told a congressional panel March 5.
"The absence of a strong government in Somalia remains the single greatest challenge to regional security," Daniel Pike, acting principal director of African Affairs, said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "[It] provides freedom of action for those engaged in piracy along the Somalia coast."
Because experience has shown that no one nation can secure every ocean and waterway around the world, all nations have a vital interest in ensuring the maritime domain remains secure and open, he added.
This is precisely what an international coalition has come together to guarantee, Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet, said. He also commands the Combined Maritime Forces, an international coalition created to address the recent uptick in piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Several years ago, the number of pirate attacks off the eastern coast of Somalia began to increase, he said. In response, the U.S. 5th Fleet and the shipping industry moved the transit lane further off the coast.
It worked, and attacks decreased to just a few a year, Gortney said. But the situation changed in mid-August 2008, when a new clan of Somali pirates began attacking ships north of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. In just a few days, the number of pirate attacks went from three to 12.
"Ultimately, we knew the solution to the problem of piracy is ashore in Somalia itself," he said.
"Therefore, I focused the coalition maritime efforts on security and stability ... operations at sea that would give the international community time to address the long-term solution."
Counter-piracy efforts have been focused in three main areas: increasing international naval presence, improving the shipping industry's defensive measures, and creating an international legal framework for resolving piracy cases.
"Since late August, there have been significant strides made," Gortney said. That's in part because of Combined Task Force 151, which Gortney established in early January with the specific mission and mandate to conduct counter-piracy operations.
"The efforts of CTF 151 are critical to the tactical coordination and deconfliction efforts with all of the international naval forces operating in the Gulf of Aden," he said. "CTF 151, and other cooperating naval forces, have encountered approximately 250 pirates."
Of those, 121 have been disarmed and released, 117 have been disarmed and turned over for prosecution, and nine are pending final disposition.
A memorandum of understanding with Kenya signed in January allowed for this morning's turnover of seven suspected pirates taken by CTF 151 last month to Kenyan authorities in the Port of Mombasa with full evidentiary packages, he said.
Pirates' abilities have further been affected by the coalition and task force efforts, which resulted in 28 pirate skiffs seized or destroyed, Gortney said. In addition, 133 small arms, 28 rocket-propelled grenades, 51 rocket-propelled-grenade projectiles and 21 ladders and grappling hooks were confiscated.
"We have been successful not only in our coalition efforts but in communicating and coordinating with other naval forces deployed to the region as well as working with the merchant shipping industry to share best practices and lessons learned," he said.
All of the efforts to counter pirate attacks thus far have resulted in a drop in successful attacks from a high of 64 percent in October to 17 percent in February, according to U.S. State Department statistics. Currently, six ships are being held hostage, compared to the 14 ships that were being held hostage toward the end of last year.
In addition to the military approach to counter-piracy attacks, the government is moving on three other fronts to curtail attacks. Diplomacy, helping the shipping industry bolster self-defense efforts, and improving judicial capacity in the region to prosecute and penalize pirates all are part of the strategy, the State Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for international security and arms control said.
"On these four tracks, working together, I think we've made good progress just in the past few months," Stephen Mull told the committee. "The benefits from this effort, I think, will go far beyond just stopping pirates.
"I think this cooperation could form the foundation for a new regional maritime security framework with regional states and outside contributors," he continued. "This new framework could include a whole range of features that I think would improve the security of the region, as well as our own security."
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