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US Officials: Increased Anti-Piracy Efforts Showing Results in Somalia

The commander of U.S. and coalition naval forces in the Middle East says increased international cooperation and the ability to turn over suspected pirates to Kenya for prosecution is making an impact in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Vice Admiral William Gortney says the U.S. Navy turned over seven suspected Somali pirates to Kenyan authorities Thursday at the Port of Mombasa. These arrests are a result of a January agreement with Kenya, which created a system for detainment that had been lacking before.

The admiral, who commands a multi-national anti-piracy task force authorized by the United Nations Security Council, says creating the judicial capacity to prosecute pirates has made a difference in deterring would-be hijackers. He says the Combined Task Force, or CTF 151, has had its hands full.

"CTF 151 [Combined Task Force] and other cooperating naval forces have encountered approximately 250 pirates; 121 were disarmed and released, 117 disarmed and turned over for prosecution and nine are pending final disposition," he said.

Admiral Gortney told a U.S. congressional panel Thursday that the naval forces have also confiscated many pirate "tools of the trade," including small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, ladders and grappling hooks.

State Department Ambassador Stephen Mull, also testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, says Kenya is willing to prosecute as many pirates as the international community provides. He says the United States, working with the U.N. Security Council, has made good progress increasing its international naval presence and has better coordination with the shipping industry.

"The results of all of these efforts combined have been encouraging," he said. "The rate of successful piracy attacks, which was 64 percent in October, plummeted to only 17 percent in February."

In addition, Mull says only six ships are currently being held hostage today compared to 14 that were being held toward the end of last year. But Mull acknowledges that Somalia's real problem is the absence of political and economic stability.

"There is no doubt that piracy is a symptom of Somalia's failure as a state," he said. "While our efforts to counter piracy described here are strictly focused on piracy, in recognition of the broader problem, the U.S. separately supports the U.N.-led Djibouti peace process, which provides a mechanism for political reconciliation."

Ambassador Mull says neither the United States nor other coalition partners have plans to conduct counter-piracy measures inside Somalia, but says the U.S. is in negotiations with other countries in the region to join Kenya in prosecuting suspected pirates.

While some U.S. officials fret that Somali pirates might be associated with Islamist insurgents inside Somalia, Admiral Gortney says so far he has seen no evidence of a connection between the two.

"We look very, very carefully for a linkage between piracy and terrorism, or any kind of ideology, and we do not see it," he said. "It would be a significant game changer should that linkage occur. This is financially motive criminal activity at sea because they have no alternatives to make a living other than that."

Gortney says he expects eight other countries to send ships and aircraft to join the effort in the coming months.