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UN gives OK to land, air attacks on Somali pirates

December 16, 2008 06:21 PM EST | AP

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A member of the Dutch special forces stands guard near the bridge of Dutch cargo ship MV Jumbo Javelin as it passes near the Gulf of Aden on Monday, Dec. 8, 2008. The Dutch warship De Ruyter, seen in the background, was escorting the cargo ship through the Gulf of Aden, which has become the world's top piracy hotspot this year. Pirates have made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom this year, seizing 40 vessels off Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline. Fourteen ships remain held along with more than 250 crew members, according to maritime officials.(AP Photo/Tom Maliti, file)

UNITED NATIONS — On the same day Somali gunmen seized two more ships, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize nations to conduct land and air attacks on pirate bases on the coast of the Horn of Africa country.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on hand to push through the resolution, one of President George W. Bush's last major foreign policy initiatives.

Rice said the resolution will have a significant impact, especially since "pirates are adapting to the naval presence in the Gulf of Aden by traveling further" into sea lanes not guarded by warships sent by the U.S. and other countries.

The council authorized nations to use "all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia" to stop anyone using Somali territory to plan or carry out piracy in the nearby waters traversed each year by thousands of cargo ships sailing between Asia and the Suez Canal.

That includes the use of Somali airspace, even though the U.S. appeased Indonesia, a council member, by removing direct mention of it, U.S. officials said.

Somalia Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Jama, whose government asked for the help, said he was "heartened" by the council action. "These acts of piracy are categorically unacceptable and should be put to an end," he said.

The resolution sets up the possibility of increased American military action in Somalia, a chaotic country where a U.S. peacekeeping mission in 1992-93 ended with a humiliating withdrawal of troops after a deadly clash in Mogadishu, as portrayed in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

The commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet expressed doubt last week about the wisdom of staging ground attacks on Somali pirates. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters it is difficult to identify pirates and said the potential for killing innocent civilians "cannot be overestimated."

Rice played down the differences between the State Department and Pentagon, telling reporters that the U.S. was fully committed to preventing pirates from establishing a sanctuary.

"What we do or do not do in cases of hot pursuit we'll have to see, and you'll have to take it case by case," she said. "I would not be here seeking authorization to go ashore if the United States government, perhaps most importantly, the president of the United States, were not behind this resolution."

Spurred by widespread poverty in their homeland, which hasn't had a functioning government for nearly two decades, Somali pirates are evading an international naval flotilla to intercept huge tankers, freighters and other ships to hold for ransom. A tugboat operated by the French oil company Total and a Turkish cargo ship became the latest victims Tuesday.

Pirates have hijacked more than 40 vessels off Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline this year. Before the latest seizures, maritime officials said 14 vessels remained in pirate hands _ including a Saudi tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil and a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and other heavy weapons. Also held are more than 250 crew members.

Rice said the resolution will allow the tougher action needed to quell the piracy, which she blamed on Somalia's turmoil.

"Once peace and normalcy have returned to Somalia, we believe that economic development can return to Somalia," she said. "This current response is a good start."

Under the resolution, nations must first get a request for an attack from Somalia's weak U.N.-backed government, which itself would be required to notify U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before any attack.

"Piracy is a symptom of the state of anarchy which has persisted in that country for over 17 years," Ban told the council. "This lawlessness constitutes a serious threat to regional stability and to international peace and security."

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to discuss any possible military operations, but acknowledged there are "practical challenges" to combating pirates. He said the U.S. would continue to work with allies in the region and encourage shipping companies to take prudent measures to protect their vessels.

The United Nations also has been urging shipping and insurance companies not to pay ransom for captured ships, saying that encourages more piracy.

He Yafei, China's vice minister for foreign affairs, told the Security Council that China is considering sending warships to the Gulf of Aden, where they would join ships from the U.S., Russia, Denmark, Italy and other countries.

Kenya's military chief, Gen. Jeremiah Kianga, said Tuesday his country will increase patrols along its own coast because the Somali piracy has made business at Kenya's main port more expensive. The Kenyan air force and navy will not enter Somali air space or waters, he said.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the Vienna, Austria-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said Tuesday that it is important for nations to jointly confront pirates.

"Regional cooperation is essential," Costa said. "A few years ago, piracy was a threat to the Straits of Malacca (in Southeast Asia). By working together, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand managed to cut the number of attacks by more than half since 2004."

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Associated Press writers Ahmed Al-Haj in San'A, Yemen, William J. Kole in Vienna, Austria, and Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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