UNITED NATIONS – The United States sought international authorization Wednesday to hunt Somali pirates on land with the cooperation of Somalia's weak U.N.-backed government in one of the Bush administration's last major foreign policy initiatives.
The U.S. circulated a draft United Nations Security Council resolution proposing that all nations and regional groups cooperating with Somalia's government in the fight against piracy and armed robbery "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia," including its airspace.
If the U.S. military gets involved, it would mark a dramatic turnabout from the U.S. experience in Somalia in 1992-1993 that culminated in a deadly military clash in Mogadishu followed by a humiliating withdrawal of American forces.
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Piracy off Somalia has intensified in recent months, with more attacks against a wider range of targets. There was an unsuccessful assault on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Aden, which links the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. In September, pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter loaded with 33 battle tanks and on Nov. 15 they seized a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude.
The U.S. resolution is to be presented at a session on Somalia Tuesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
It proposes that for a year, nations "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace, to interdict those who are using Somali territory to plan, facilitate or undertake acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea and to otherwise prevent those activities."
The draft also says Somalia's government — whose president wrote the U.N. twice this month already seeking help — suffers from a "lack of capacity, domestic legislation, and clarity about how to dispose of pirates after their capture."
The resolution is aimed at taking measures to stabilize the long-violent and lawless Somalia, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about it on the record. Though a number of countries have sent naval forces and taken other steps to stop the piracy, the efforts have been considered "very uncoordinated' so far, a second U.S. official also said privately.
Earlier this month, the Security Council extended authorization for another year for countries to enter Somalia's territorial waters, with advance notice, and to use "all necessary means" to stop acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.
Nations entering Somali waters to fight piracy and armed robbery along the country's 1,880-mile coastline, the continent's longest, must first obtain approval from the Somali government and give advance notice to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
But now the U.S. believes the fight must go ashore.
Other international forces, however, have fared poorly in the past trying to help Somalia, whose latest government was formed in 2004, with the help of the U.N., and is backed by Ethiopia.
Somalia has been without an effective government for nearly 20 years. The United States sent troops in 1993 to back a massive U.N. relief operation for thousands of civilians left starving by fighting.
But the U.S. attacked the home of a warlord, killing scores of civilians including women and children. Somali militiamen retaliated, bringing down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and killing 18 American servicemen whose bodies were dragged through the streets. That experience precipitating the U.S. withdrawal was portrayed in the 2001 movie "Black Hawk Down."
Ethiopian troops, the region's strongest force, have been regularly attacked since arriving two years ago. They largely have been confined to urban bases, as have the 2,600 African Union peacekeepers sent as part of an approved 8,000-member AU mission.
The push for a broader international accord on how to suppress piracy in waters off Somalia's lawless coast is one of President George W. Bush's final foreign policy initiatives, officials say.
Without committing more U.S. Navy ships, the administration wants to tap into what officials see as a growing enthusiasm in Europe and elsewhere for more effective coordinated action against the Somali pirates. Administration officials view the current effort as lacking coherence, as pirates score more and bigger shipping prizes.
Spearheading the administration's case, Rice intends to make a pitch at the U.N.'s anti-piracy meeting in New York on Tuesday with her counterparts from a number of nations with a stake in solving the problem.
"I expect in the coming weeks we will work within the U.N. to give the international system better policy tools to more effectively address the problem and its root causes," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
That includes pressing for an international peacekeeping force in Somalia to replace the Ethiopian-led force that is to depart soon, he said. The pirates are Somalis based in camps near coastal port villages. The U.S. says they have links to an Islamic extremist group that has taken control of much of the country.
About 100 attacks on ships have been reported off the Somali coast this year. Forty vessels have been hijacked, with 14 still remaining in the hands of pirates along with more than 250 crew members, according to maritime officials.
Pirates have attacked 32 vessels and hijacked 12 since NATO sent four ships to the region Oct. 24 to escort cargo ships and conduct anti-piracy patrols. Ships still being held for huge ransoms include the Saudi oil tanker and the Ukrainian ship.