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Page last updated at 21:18 GMT, Saturday, 13 December 2008

How do you tackle piracy?

Robert Gates arrives in Bahrain for security conference
Robert Gates, waving, called for ships to better protect themselves

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent, Bahrain

On the island state of Bahrain, home to the headquarters of the US Navy's powerful 5th Fleet, defence ministers, admirals and officials from 25 countries have gathered to discuss, amongst other regional problems, the thorny issue of Somali pirates.

Over the past year, delegates were told, there had been a 300% increase in attempted and actual attacks on shipping in the region, with 17 ships and around 300 crew members currently being held for ransom off the Somalia coast.

In a keynote speech on Saturday the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, called on commercial shipping companies to do more to protect their vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden or sailing past the Horn of Africa.

Instead of stopping when challenged by pirates, he said, they should accelerate and pull up their ladders as there had been plenty of recent instances of ships outmanoeuvring the pirates.

He also suggested that another possible preventative measure could be to post armed guards onboard, but shipping sources in London were quick to dismiss this as impractical.

UK Defence Secretary John Hutton
We cannot allow these remote parts of the world to descend into this type of chaos
John Hutton
UK Defence Secretary

A leading maritime lawyer told the BBC that if insurers could prove that an armed clash with pirates constituted "unlawful use of weapons at sea" then the insurance company would be unlikely to pay up for any damage or loss of the ship and its cargo.

No shipping company, said the lawyer, would want that.

One option under discussion here in the Gulf is possible military action against pirate bases on land, since nearly everyone agreed that tackling pirates at sea is only dealing with the symptoms of the problem, not the root cause.

The US is sponsoring a draft UN Security Council resolution that would authorise - with permission from the weak Somali government - attacks on pirate land bases.

But while Mr Gates said he believed that the problem came from two or three extended Somali clans, the US did not yet have enough intelligence on which individuals were involved to go after them without causing civilian casualties.

The one thing that had been established, said US naval officers, was that there was no connection between piracy and terrorism.

Consequences

If that changed, they said, then the rules of engagement were likely to become a lot more robust.

Britain's Defence Secretary John Hutton added his own views on piracy, telling the BBC in an interview that the world was paying a price for ignoring Somalia's descent into lawlessness and that piracy was the result.

He said the nature of the threat had changed dramatically over the last 12 months and that the problem stemmed from the pirates' bases on land.

"We haven't been as involved in Somalia as we should have been. This is the consequence.

"It could get worse unless we try and resolve this problem with our regional partners and friends and allies around the world. The piracy is a manifestation of failed states.

"It could take other manifestations: terrorism, drugs, people trafficking and so on. We cannot allow these remote parts of the world to descend into this type of chaos."

International prison?

Finally, there is the question of how to prosecute those accused of piracy.

Senior naval officers from the US, France and other nations agreed here that there was an urgent need to establish an international legal framework for prosecution.

Currently navies are reluctant to arrest alleged pirates as in most cases there was nowhere to take them to stand trial.

What was needed, said some officers, was an international court, backed by the UN, with perhaps even an international prison for those convicted.



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