U.S. officials began an inter-agency process Friday to try to find new ways to fight the piracy off the coast of Somalia.
A working group of senior officials met at the State Department, including representatives of the U.S. intelligence services and the top Pentagon official for African affairs. The Pentagon said this is the beginning of a process that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said will likely occupy a lot of time among senior officials in the coming weeks.
"We are engaged in working our way through this right now, in terms of what combination of strategies, both civilian and military, both private and public cooperation, we can do to at least make it a lot more dangerous and a lot tougher for the pirates, and then see if we can address the longer term aspects of the problem," he said.
Gates said those longer term aspects involve providing economic opportunities in Somalia. In the meantime, he said, the military will continue to do what it can, working with shipping companies, to discourage the pirates and deal with them when they strike. Speaking to Navy officers Friday, Secretary Gates mentioned one approach he said is under consideration.
"One of the things that some of our experts thought about is whether we should increase or strengthen or relationship with some of the local governments in Somalia, such as the government up in Puntland, that has somewhat more authority in its own area than the government in Mogadishu," he said.
Other potential steps officials have mentioned include better security by the shipping companies and more effective prosecution of captured pirates, which has already begun. But military officials are reluctant to get involved in combat operations on land against the pirate bases in Somalia, saying they would likely be only marginally effective and could result in civilian casualties.