Somalia's prime minister is calling for a halt to ransom payments to pirates and kidnappers.  He says the vast sums being paid are contributing to the rise in ship hijackings and hostage-takings. 

Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke says the millions of dollars being paid to free captured ships off Somalia's coast, as well as foreigners kidnapped on land are making matters worse.  He says the money would be better spent in helping Somalia train and equip security forces to combat rampant lawlessness.

"Our policy is always, do not pay ransoms, and assist us in building our own security.  Look, how many countries' ships were sent into the waters off Somalia," he said.  "This has not discouraged an inch.  Yes, it has prevented some attacks, but if you look at the statistics, the hijacking has only increased."

The International Maritime Bureau reports at least 61 pirate attacks in the waters off Somalia's coast in the first quarter of this year.  That is 10 times higher than in the same period a year ago.

An organization that tracks hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean around Somalia says at least 17 ships and 300 crew members are still in pirate hands.

The amount of ransoms paid is harder to gauge, but experts believe this year's total is in the tens of millions of dollars.

Prime Minister Sharmarke says stories of pirates living in luxury mansions are luring Somali youth with little hope of finding  a legitimate job in a country that has not had a functioning government in their lifetimes.

"That was what encouraged some of the young kids to go to the waters," said Mr. Sharmarke.  "I think the only way out is for us to prevent before these guys go to the waters, and all the ways to have fully functional security institutions that can deny safe havens."

Reports of piracy and kidnapping are overshadowing an international conference on Somalia beginning Thursday in Brussels. The meeting is aimed at raising money to back the government led by Prime Minister Sharmarke and President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, which many see as the best hope for bringing stability to the Horn of Africa country after 18 years of anarchy.

Mr. Sharmarke says headlines and pictures such as that of the captured teenage pirate in a New York courtroom can only be prevented when Somalia has a government that can enforce its own laws.

"Piracy cannot be separated from a fully functioning government.  I think the surgical approach to piracy is going to help in the short term," continued Mr. Sharmarke.  "But in the long term the only way this could be tackled is to assist the government of Somalia to become fully functional so that this violence can be prevented before they go to the waters."

The United States is sending its top Africa diplomat, acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Carter to the Brussels conference.  Others attending include U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping.