U.N. Charts New Course in Pirate Fight

Twenty-four nations pledged Wednesday at a U.S.-led meeting to better coordinate their efforts against Somali piracy in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Diplomats met privately at U.N. headquarters to focus on methods of fighting the rise of piracy off Somalia's lawless coastline, where 11 vessels with 210 crew members are now in pirate hands.

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"So much of this is synchronization and adding on to the great work that our sailors from, at this point, 16 different nations on the water are conducting," the group's chairman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Mark Kimmitt, told reporters after the nearly day-long meeting.

"We believe that 2009 will be a year where we can turn this problem around if we come together as a group of nations, working not simply the military aspect, but the judicial aspect, the financial aspect, the industry aspect," he said.

The U.S. Navy last week announced a new international naval taks force under American command to confront the escalating attacks. However, the force will carry no wider authority than warships currently have to strike at pirate vessels at sea or specific mandates to move against havens on shore. The Navy says that under the new mission, more than 20 nations are eventually expected to take part.

Kimmitt, who deals with political-military affairs, said during the meeting that there is a "sense" among U.S. counter-piracy officials that there should be more focus on where the money is coming from to finance the pirates' operations. He suggested that pirates might be receiving financing by "external" or some other "private groups."

The meeting was presided over by representatives of Yemen, Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Spain and Somalia. The diplomats discussed forming a "working group" but several said it would need a mandate first to determine whether sensitive information, such as currency serial numbers and bank transactions, would be swapped.

Kimmitt told reporters that the so-called "Contact Group on Somali Piracy" was formed "because we believe not only as individual nations, but as a collective body that we can do more to interrupt, interdict, disrupt piracy in the Gulf of Aden."

In a statement, the group promised to report regularly to the Security Council and to consider the creation of a regional anti-piracy information center.

Somalia's lack of a functioning government since 1991 has made it a haven for pirates, whose multimillion dollar ransoms — a total of $30 million last year — represent about the only booming industry in the impoverished nation.