Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday the United States is trying to recruit additional countries to join anti-piracy naval operations along the African east coast in the wake of this week's pirate attack on a U.S.-flagged cargo ship. Clinton vowed to bring the hijackers of that ship to justice.
Obama administration officials are working to augment the international anti-piracy task force off the Somali coast, even as efforts continue to free the American captain still held by pirates on a lifeboat from the container ship.
At a State Department press event, Clinton called those holding ship captain Richard Phillips nothing more than criminals. She said numerous U.S. assets including the Navy and Federal Bureau of Investigation are being brought to bear to end the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice.
An anti-piracy resolution by the U.N. Security Council in December authorized countries around the world to deploy patrol vessels in anti-piracy operations off Somalia and warships from at least a dozen countries - including the United States, Russia, China, India and Japan -- are currently deployed.
Clinton spoke after concluding a meeting that included the piracy issue with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their Australian counterparts. She said the administration is seeking a 21st-Century response to a centuries old problem, which should involve more task force contributors and also address the issue of Somalia's chronic instability.
"We are looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of what we are doing, including the recruitment of additional partners to be part of the surveillance work that is done. But we also understand that the instability in Somalia is a contributing factor to those who take to the seas in order to board ships, hijack them, intimidate and threaten their crews, and then seek ransom," she said.
The incident involving the container ship Maersk Alabama began Wednesday when pirates boarded the vessel some 500 kilometers off the Somalia coast. The 20-man crew regained control of the Danish-owned, U.S.-flagged ship. But captain Phillips was taken hostage - an apparent voluntary act to spare other crew members - as the pirates fled aboard a lifeboat.
A tense confrontation has continued since, with a U.S. Navy destroyer on the scene and negotiators led by the FBI talking to the pirates. Defense Secretary Gates was sparing in his remarks about the situation, given the sensitivity of the case. "We are monitoring the situation very closely. The safe return of the captain is the top priority. We obviously have a naval presence in the area and other assets. And we are obviously looking at our options. But again foremost in our minds is the safety of the captain," he said.
The United Nations says Somali pirates carried out at least 120 attacks on ships last year and netted combined ransom payoffs of about $150 million dollars.
The rate of hijackings slowed early this year as international patrolling increased in the relatively narrow Gulf of Aden, but there has been a surge of attacks in recent days in the Indian Ocean far off the Somali coast.
Over the past week, pirates have seized a German cargo ship, a French yacht, a Taiwanese fishing vessel and a Yemeni tugboat. The seized American ship had been bound for Mombassa, Kenya with a load of relief supplies for the U.N. World Food Program.