The commander of U.S. and coalition naval forces in the Middle East says the he will soon order a more aggressive approach to fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Vice Admiral William Gortney says he expects approval by next week of a plan to hunt down and arrest suspected pirates, and deliver them to a country in the region for detention and prosecution. The admiral would not name the country, saying the State Department is in the final phase of negotiations.
"We are going to aggressively go after the pirates that are conducting pirate activity," he said. "And it's going to be a mixture of surveillance and then rapid action once we observe them, because we know we're going to have to adhere to the rules of evidence."
Admiral Gortney says that under the new plan, his forces will arrest suspected pirates - even if they are not in the act of attacking a ship. Under current rules, sailors confiscate and dump overboard weapons found on pirate ships, but let the offenders go because there is no system for detaining them. Admiral Gortney says "pirate paraphernalia" includes AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and ladders for climbing up onto large ships.
He told a news conference on Thursday that the new rules of engagement will make his operations to deter piracy more effective.
"We have to make it unpleasant to be a pirate," he said. "And that's when we can capture them and try them and hold them accountable for their actions, if they're found guilty, is the way we're going to go after that."
Admiral Gortney says pirates still control 11 ships off the Horn of Africa, with 210 crew members held hostage. The admiral commands an anti-piracy task force authorized by the United Nations Security Council, but currently there are only U.S. ships in the force. He expects several other nations to join the effort in the coming months.
Some countries, including Russia and China, have sent ships to the area to help escort their merchant vessels through the dangerous waters.
Admiral Gortney says that although he does not command those ships, his forces have good communications and coordination with the other navies.
But the admiral says that ultimately piracy has to be solved inside Somalia.
"The problem of piracy started ashore," he said. "And it's because there is not a rule of law; there isn't a [system of] governance; there isn't economic stability; there isn't a court system that will hold these criminals responsible for their actions. And so the ultimate solution is ashore proper."
Admiral Gortney welcomed efforts at the United Nations, including a meeting on Wednesday, where representatives of 24 countries discussed ways to fight piracy.
The admiral says there was a spike in pirate hijackings in August, but there have been fewer successful attacks in recent months. He noted that only about one-tenth of one percent of the tens-of-thousands of ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden each year are seized by pirates.