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Analysts Skeptical New Somali Navy Can Fight Piracy

The U.N.-backed transitional government in Somalia has begun training recruits to serve in the Somali navy, which has not been in existence for nearly two decades. The effort comes amid increasing international concern about how to tackle the problem of piracy off the Somali coast. The continuing turmoil inside Somalia is proving to be the biggest obstacle toward ending the chaos at sea.

The training of some 500 young sailors for Somalia's new navy began last Wednesday on the grounds of the Old Port in northern Mogadishu.

It is a facility which, like the rest of the capital, clearly shows the deep scars and neglect of nearly two decades of civil war. Amid the ruin, the navy's new chief, Admiral Farah Omar Ahmed, is attempting to resurrect a branch of the Somali armed forces that disintegrated with the country in 1991.

Ahmed has not held a command since 1982. But in an interview with VOA in Mogadishu, he said he is ready to lead.

The admiral said the young men are volunteers between the ages of 18 and 25. He said they are the first of what he hopes will eventually be a naval force of 5,000 men, capable of curbing piracy and other illegal activities in Somali waters.

For now, most of the naval training is taking place on land. Somalia's transitional federal government does not control much of the country, let alone Somalia's 3,000 kilometer-long coastline. And it has no ships capable of carrying large numbers of men.

Even the $60 monthly salary promised to each sailor is largely dependent on the payment of more than $200 million pledged at a donor conference two months ago in Brussels. Government officials have complained that little, if any, of the money has reached Mogadishu.

Horn of Africa analyst at Chatham House, Roger Middleton, said to hope for a functioning navy in Somalia right now is simply not realistic.

"Piracy is a big problem for the rest of the world and the central government will try to use this as a means to buttress their support internationally to gain money, and that is perfectly normal and understandable. But the government is fighting for its survival against al-Shabab and their focus is going to be on fighting the war on land. If they do not focus on that, they will not be around for very long," he said.

Al-Shabab is an al-Qaida-linked militant group that is leading an insurgency to overthrow Somalia's U.N.-backed government. The election of a moderate Islamist in January to head the government, and the government's subsequent moves to install Islamic law in the country, has done little to appease the militants.

Months of near-daily battles in Mogadishu and elsewhere in the country between al-Shabab and allied militias and government and pro-government forces underscore a war for control of Somalia that is worse than anything the country has seen in nearly 20 years of conflict.

Analysts widely agree that the insurgency, combined with what many people describe as a half-hearted commitment from the African Union, the United Nations, and western countries to provide tangible backing, is preventing the government from implementing meaningful measures that could improve the lives of ordinary Somalis. And that, they say, is costing the government the popular support it needs to win the war against its opponents.

Meanwhile, warships from more than 20 countries are trying to protect vital shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia from pirate attacks. There has been rising concern in the shipping industry that given the financial cost of such operations, governments may be tempted to scale back their commitments.

To make matters worse, Somali pirates have also started hunting further from shore, attacking ships in waters as far north as Oman to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Analyst J. Peter Pham said he supports the Somali government efforts to build a navy that can take over maritime security duties from the international community. But he said a fragile government, preoccupied with establishing authority, cannot do it alone.

"It can be built under the aegis of the African Union, serving a regional capability, and if at some future date, there is a government that is effective and legitimate and accountable, that institution that is built up under the aegis of the A.U. could be turned over to the government at a later date. An African Union-regional coast guard could at least begin patrolling areas along the coast and rendering assistance to vessels in distress," he added.

The fear is that if nothing is done to address the intertwined problems of political instability and piracy, thousands of more young men in Somalia will soon turn to piracy as a way out of endless poverty and war.