UNITED NATIONS – The United States and France are drafting a U.N. resolution that would allow countries to chase and arrest pirates off Somalia's coast, responding to a spate of attacks including this week's hijacking of a Spanish tuna boat, U.N. diplomats said Monday.
France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said the resolution would authorize foreign governments pursue pirate vessels into territorial waters, make arrests, and prosecute suspects.
"We want to do it fast, but it could take one or two weeks because it has to be by consensus — it's not confrontational," he told the Associated Press.
The push by key U.N. Security Council nations to tackle the issue follows an alarming increase in piracy by well-armed bandits, prompting international demands for better protection of the world's shipping lanes.
Pirates in the lawless Gulf of Aden off Somalia fired on a Japanese oil tanker Monday, unleashing hundreds of gallons of fuel into the sea, a day after a Spanish tuna boat was hijacked using rocket-propelled grenades. Earlier this month, a French luxury yacht was hijacked.
The tanker attack helped send crude oil prices to a new record, spiking above $117 a barrel Monday before falling back slightly.
"The issue of piracy is an important issue, and within that framework we're focusing in particular on the threat of piracy off the coast of Somalia," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told The Associated Press.
In a separate attack Sunday in the Gulf of Aden, pirates approached the Spanish Playa de Bakio and opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades, striking it but causing no serious damage, said an official in Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's office.
Spain sent a frigate to the site of the hijacking about 200 miles off the coast of Somalia. Twenty-six crew were aboard the 250-foot vessel when the pirates forced their way on the ship.
The Spanish prime minister's office said efforts were under way to secure the sailors' release, and that aid was being sought from NATO, the African Union, France and Britain. Spain does not have an embassy in Somalia, which has not had an effective government since 1991.
The hijackers are demanding money but have not specified how much, Rosa Maria Alvarez, the daughter of the ship's skipper, Amadeo Alvarez Gomez, told Spanish National Radio. The government declined to comment on her remarks.
Last week, French judges filed preliminary charges against six Somali pirates accused of holding 30 hostages aboard a French luxury yacht for a week in the Gulf of Aden. A French military helicopter captured them after the April 11 release of the yacht's crew. The ship's owners reportedly paid a ransom.
According to a report from the International Maritime Bureau, piracy is on the rise, with seafarers suffering 49 attacks between January and March — up 20 percent from the period last year.
Pirates boarded 36 vessels and hijacked one, the report said. Seven crew members were taken hostage, six were kidnapped, three were killed and one went missing. Most of the attackers were heavily armed with guns or knives, the report said.
Nigeria ranked as the No. 1 trouble spot. India and the Gulf of Aden tied for second, with each reporting five incidents. Nearly two dozen piracy incidents were recorded off the coast of Somalia since January 2007, according to Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based Seafarers Assistance Program.
Khalilzad said discussion on the issue has been ongoing. "We're talking to the French and others to put forward something on the piracy, specifically off the coast of Somalia, but the importance of the overall issue will be recognized," Khalilzad said. "We're working very hard on it."
What takes time, Ripert said, is working out the legal details because pursuing pirate vessels could mean going into the territorial waters of a country "so you have to pre-negotiate the consent of the state."
"We want also to address other zones in the world, but then the situations and the realities are different," he said, so the initial resolution will probably just focus on Somalia.
Ripert said France and the U.S. are also working on a separate resolution to secure humanitarian convoys.
The European Union presidency on Monday called for a strong international effort to address piracy, while Spanish lawmaker Mikel Irujo Amezaga urged immediate action at the European Parliament.
"There is a lack of EU legislation on maritime security. Security is more or less regulated inside the EU but once you go outside, there's nothing at all protecting European ships. We're going to ask the (European) Commission again to rectify this," Irujo Amezaga said by telephone.
Cyrus Mody, a senior analyst at the Maritime Bureau, warned of piracy's effect on the shipping industry.
"Insurance gets involved, premiums rise up, the owner is not happy so he will raise his freight cost. If he does that, the cost to the end buyer increases and at the end the common man has to bare the brunt," he said. "It's a cycle and it keeps going on."
Wracked by more than a decade of violence and anarchy, Somalia does not have a navy, and a transitional government formed in 2004 with U.N. help has struggled to assert control. The U.S. Navy has led international patrols to try to combat piracy in the region.