Officials Call for Naval Blockade Along Somali Coast in Wake of Pirate Hijackings

Shipping officials from around the world called Monday for a military blockade along Somalia's coast to intercept pirate vessels heading out to sea. Yemen's government said Somali pirates have seized another ship.

Peter Swift, managing director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, said stronger naval action — including aerial support — is necessary to battle rampant piracy in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia.

But NATO, which has four warships off the coast of Somalia, rejected a blockade.

Some 20 tankers sail through the sea lane daily. But many tanker owners are considering a massive detour around southern Africa to avoid pirates, which will delay delivery and push costs up by 30 percent, Swift said.

Click here for photos.

The association, whose members own 2,900 tankers or 75 percent of the world's fleet, opposes attempts to arm merchant ships because it could escalate the violence and put crew members at even greater risk, he said.

"The other option is perhaps putting a blockade around Somalia and introducing the idea of intercepting vessels leaving Somalia rather than to try to protect the whole of the Gulf of Aden," Swift said.

The Gulf of Aden, off Somalia, connects to the Red Sea, which in turn is linked to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The route is thousands of miles and many days shorter than traveling around Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

Somali pirates have become increasingly brazen, seizing eight vessels in the past two weeks, including a huge Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil.

On Monday, Yemen's Interior Ministry said Somali pirates had hijacked a Yemeni cargo ship in the Arabian Sea. It said communication with the vessel was lost last Tuesday after it had been out to sea for a week.

The ship is called Adina and it was not immediately clear what cargo it was carrying. The U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain could not confirm the hijacking.

The Arabian Sea stretches between Yemen and Somalia. The Gulf of Aden links it with the Red Sea.

A blockade along Somalia's 2,400 mile coastline would not be easy.

"But some intervention there may be effective," Swift told reporters on the sidelines of a shipping conference in Malaysia.

U.S. Gen. John Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander, said Monday the alliance's mandate is solely to escort World Food Program ships to Somalia and to conduct anti-piracy patrols.

Asked what he thought of a Russian proposal to jointly attack the pirate strongholds, Craddock answered: "That's far beyond what I've been tasked to do."

According to Lt. Nathan Christensen, 5th Fleet spokesman, more than 14 warships from Denmark, France, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, the U.S. and NATO are currently patrolling a vast international maritime corridor. They escort some merchant ships and respond to distress calls in the area.

Christensen declined to comment on the idea of a blockade.

But the navies say it is virtually impossible to patrol the vast sea around the gulf.

NATO has ruled out a blockade.

"Blocking ports is not contemplated by NATO," said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels. U.N. Security Council resolutions "do not include these kind of actions and as far as NATO is concerned, this is at the moment not on the cards," he said.

Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa said Monday Arabs should deploy their own naval forces to fight piracy in the Horn of Africa and also cooperate with foreign fleets in the area.

Diplomats of the Arab countries on the Red Sea met in Cairo last week to coordinate efforts to combat piracy, but some of these nations have been reluctant to get involved.

Rachid Mohamed Rachid, Egypt's trade minister, said Monday in Greece that piracy was a big issue for the country, which draws substantial revenues from Suez shipping fees.

"Obviously we will take all the measures needed to ensure the Suez Canal traffic, but I believe that this will take a global effort in the next few weeks," Rachid told The Associated Press.

Somalia, an impoverished nation caught up in an Islamic insurgency, has had no functioning government since 1991. Before the Yemeni report of another hijacked ship, there had been 95 pirate attacks so far this year in Somali waters, with 39 ships hijacked.

There were 15 ships with nearly 300 crew still in the hands of Somali pirates, who dock the hijacked vessels near the eastern and southern coast as they negotiate for ransom. That does not include the Yemeni cargo vessel.

"Any action to prevent the pirates from heading out to sea is welcome," said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur. He said it was up to the international community to decide how they can deploy their forces for the blockade.

The Baltic and International Maritime Council, the world's largest private shipping organization, echoed calls for greater military action.

"Despite increased patrols by coalition forces, piracy attacks continue. We hope a system ... will be put in place to coordinate the coalition forces," said Thomas Timlen, its Asian liaison officer. "It's clear from recent events ... that more needs to be done."