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Foreign navies powerless to uproot Somali piracy: experts
NAIROBI , Oct. 27, 2008 — A spate of high-profile hijackings by Somali pirates has spurred western navies into action but experts argue that a handful of warships can do little to stamp out the lucrative piracy business.
An Italian destroyer as well as British and Greek frigates arrived in the Gulf of Aden last week as the front guard of NATO's anti-piracy Operation Allied Provider.
NATO announced Monday that one of its ships had successfully carried out its first mission, escorting a vessel bringing supplies to African Union peacekeepers in Somalia .
The European Union (EU) has also pledged another three or four vessels by December in a bid to stem a phenomenon that is threatening world trade.
But experts say a beefed up naval presence can achieve little more than escort services for food aid deliveries.
"When it comes to suppressing piracy , an extra 10 or 11 ships is still not a huge amount of naval presence for a very large area," said Roger Middleton, consultant researcher for London-based think-tank Chatham House.
The new deployments added to the foreign ships already operating off the coast of Somalia will eventually bring to between 20 and 25 the total number of warships patrolling the area's dangerous waters by the end of the year.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates have attacked more than 60 ships since the start of 2008, hijacked almost half of them and received millions of dollars in ransom money.
The hijacking on September 25 of a Ukrainian cargo loaded with battle tanks and other weaponry captured the world's attention and may have sped up international action.
But pirates have expanded their activities to the eastern coast and the Indian Ocean and foreign warships will already have their hands full trying to secure a maritime corridor in the Gulf of Aden .
"If there is sufficient coordination between all these foreign actors, it can act as a deterrent but it's definitely not the death knell of Somali piracy," Middleton told AFP.
Western navies with modern equipment are already stretched by conflicts elsewhere in the world and experts argue the number of foreign warships tasked with patrolling Somalia 's waters is unlikely to increase significantly in 2009.
Many observers argue sending ships is a band-aid approach which fails to look at the root causes of the phenomenon.
Most pirate groups operate from the coast of Puntland, a lawless breakaway state in northern Somalia . Observers say ineffective security forces there and poverty have allowed piracy to flourish.
In the 17th century, Haiti 's French governor brought hundreds of prostitutes to the famous pirate lair of Tortuga in a bid to tame the island's troublesome buccaneers.
Such a move is hardly an option in modern-day Somalia and France has markedly changed tactics since, being the only country so far to have used its military firepower against the pirates.
But that approach is reserved for those countries with strong intervention capabilities, raises awkward questions with regard to international law and is often neutralized by the risk posed to hostages.
"Sending warships can only have a limited effect... one of the best ways of combating piracy would be to stop the decline of Puntland," said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Somalia expert with the Denmark-based Risk Intelligence group.
Hansen argues that not only is there no evidence of ties between pirates and Somalia 's Islamist Shebab organisation, which has been fighting the country's government, but the Islamists were more effective than most in combating piracy.
A 2006 Ethiopian invasion to oust the Islamic Courts Union that had taken control of much of the country and support a fragile transitional government had a major impact on the surge in piracy.
"Before the invasion, the Shebab were probably the best pirate fighters the country has known," said Hansen, also a senior researcher with the Norwegian Institute for Urban and regional Research.
However there are signs that major foreign players could seek to address some of the root causes and are mulling a "naval peacekeeping force" that also tackles illegal fishing and waste dumping in Somali waters, two issues that are often used as justifications by pirates.