MOMBASA, Kenya – Somalia's prime minister says his government has identified many pirate leaders and would be willing to share that information with other countries, including the United States, to get the resources needed to go after them.
Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, speaking Thursday to The Associated Press in an exclusive interview, said the pirates have become so wealthy and powerful that they threaten his government.
"We have information on who is behind this, who is involved," Sharmarke said in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. "There is a lot of money flowing in ... we are following very closely how money is distributed here."
He was referring to the fact that Somali pirates can earn $1 million or more in ransom for each hijacked ship. Forty-two ships were hijacked by Somali pirates last year, and so far 19 have been taken this year.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday announced new diplomatic efforts to freeze the pirates' assets and said the Obama administration will work with shippers and insurers to improve their defenses against pirates.
"These pirates are criminals, they are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped," Clinton said in Washington.
Clinton did not call for military force, although she mentioned "going after" pirate bases in Somalia. She urged the U.S. and others to "explore ways to track and freeze" pirate ransom money and other funds used in purchases of new boats, weapons and communications equipment.
Sharmarke said the Somali government was presenting a plan to envoys from the European Union, the United States and a regional authority to fight pirates by building up military forces and establishing intelligence-gathering posts along its coastline.
"The best way to actually deal with this is to prevent (the pirates) from going into the waters," Sharmarke said. "We are planning to establish at least ten or more observation posts on the coastline."
Still, it was not clear how this plan could cover the 1,900-mile (3,100-kilometer) Somali coastline, since his government controls only a few square blocks of the capital, Mogadishu, with the aid of African peacekeepers.
Donors have also been reluctant to fund a government with little accountability but the recent spike in piracy attacks may change that. Somali pirates are holding more than 280 foreign crewmen captive on 15 ships — at least 76 of those sailors captured in recent days.
Meanwhile, the American sea captain held hostage for five days by pirates reached port in Kenya on Thursday, hours after his crew held a joyous reunion with their families at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Capt. Richard Phillips of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama cargo ship was brought into Mombasa harbor aboard the USS Bainbridge, which docked to the music of "Sweet Home Alabama" — the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit that includes the words "I'm coming home to you."
Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, gave himself up as a hostage to ensure the safety of his crew. He was freed Sunday by Navy SEAL sharpshooters who killed his three captors.
Phillips planned to spend Thursday night on the Bainbridge, according to Maersk shipping line spokesman Gordan van Hook. He would not say when Phillips planned to fly home but a charter plane is reportedly on standby at Mombasa airport.
There were hugs, tears and a massive sense of relief when the crew of the Maersk Alabama finally reunited with loved ones after arriving at 1 a.m. Thursday at Andrews.
One crewman, carrying a child toward the terminal, shouted, "I'm happy to see my family!" Another exclaimed, "God bless America."
Also Thursday, another U.S. cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, arrived in Mombasa, its bridge damaged by rocket-propelled grenades and its windows shattered by gunfire after a pirate attack Tuesday.
The Liberty Sun's 20 American crew members crew successfully blockaded themselves in the engine room and warded off the attack with evasive maneuvers. The ship had been carrying food aid for Africans.
The European Union said Thursday it is boosting its anti-piracy fleet off the Somali coast to 11 ships, with the addition of three Swedish frigates in May. Its main task is to escort cargo ships carrying U.N. World Food Program aid to hungry Somalis.
Nearly a dozen countries, including the United States, have anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast.
The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is the shortest route from Asia to Europe. More than 20,000 ships cross the vital sea lane every year.