Saturday, April 11, 2009

Somalia Standoff Update

Here is the latest information about the situation near Somalia

Somalia Standoff Generates Debate US Policy Debate

The standoff between the U.S. Navy and pirates off the coast of Somalia is generating debate within the Obama administration over policy toward the Horn of Africa nation.

The Washington Post has a report Saturday on how U.S. officials are discussing the more general Somalia problem, and the potential terrorist threat of the Somali extremist group, al-Shabab

National security officials were quoted as saying a debate is taking place on whether a preemptive missile strike against al-Shabab is warranted.

U.S. officials said the group, which controls parts of Somalia, poses a dilemma. They point to its rapid expansion, ties between its leaders and the al-Qaida terror network, and the presence of Americans and Europeans within its ranks. But they said there is no evidence the group is planning attacks outside Somalia.

They were also quoted as saying the Obama administration differentiates itself from the former Bush administration by taking a more cautious, and less aggressive approach, on such security matters.

Previous administrations have also grappled with Somalia as a failed state.

In 1993, then President Bill Clinton ordered U.S. troops to track down a Somali warlord, leading to a long firefight in which 18 American soldiers were killed. The battle led to the book and movie called Black Hawk Down.

Link to original report: Debate

U.S. Warships Converge On Pirates

(CBS/AP) U.S. warships are trying to stop Somali pirates from sending reinforcements to a lifeboat where an American captain is being held hostage as the high-seas standoff off Africa's eastern coast entered a fourth day Saturday.

Underscoring the high stakes involved, France's navy on Friday freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.

A Nairobi-based diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters, said the pirates have summoned assistance but at least two American ships and U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft are deterring pirate ships and skiffs from contact with the lifeboat.

The pirates have threatened to kill their American hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, if the U.S. attacks them, according to a Somali who has been in contact with the pirates.

The Somali said the pirates had called in four commandeered ships with hostages from a variety of nations including the Philippines, Russia and Germany.

The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed Saturday for the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.

"We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured," said Vice President Noli de Castro. "Moreover, any military action is best done in consultation with the United Nations to gain the support and cooperation of other countries."

U.S. rules of engagement prevent the Americans using their vastly superior fighting power to engage the pirates if there is any danger to civilians.

The situation is new for the pirates. Normally, they seize a ship with many hostages and get it anchored near shore, where they can quickly escape to land, and then begin negotiations for multimillion-dollar ransoms. Left with only Phillips and a lifeboat that is out of fuel, they are in a vulnerable position.

According to CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips, reports out of Somalia this morning say that a group of clan elders may be trying to mediate in this standoff.

The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer will join two other Navy ships - the USS Bainbridge and the USS Hallyburton, which has helicopters - which are near the lifeboat 200 miles off Somalia.

The Boxer is the flag ship of a multination anti-piracy task force that resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.

Negotiations had been taking place between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge, who was getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators, the officials said.

The dangers of taking action were underlined by an attempt by the French Navy to rescue the people aboard the yacht Tanit. Four hostages, including a small child, were freed and two pirates killed when French commandos moved in on the yacht, but the yacht's captain was also killed.

So for now, the U.S. Navy appears to be working on the assumption that time is on its side.

Meanwhile, the Maersk Alabama headed toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa - its original destination - with 20 American crew members aboard. It was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, whose son is second-in-command of the vessel.

Negotiating With High-Seas Bandits

"The issue is going to be claustrophobia, sea sickness, heat, boredom," Rick Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told CBS News. "I think after a few more days in the lifeboat, the Somalis will think going to prison for two years is trading up."

At least that's the hope, said CBS' Phillips. The pirates are demanding their safety be guaranteed should they release the American ship's captain - in addition to, of course, a reported $2 million ransom.

"I'm sure the emotional level on all sides is raised with the warships on the scene," Hugh McGowan, a former commanding officer with the New York City Police Hostage Negotiating Team, said on CBS News' The Early Show. "I'm sure for the hostage takers, they assumed they were going to be in and out and get away without any problems, so now it's much more complicated."

On Friday, Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him.

Discussing Captain Phillips' failed attempt to escape, McGowan said such actions are dangerous.

"You never want to be critical of what the hostage does because they're in isolation," McGowan said. "And he probably thought he could make his escape. When we talk to people about, you know, being held hostage, we really recommend that they not try something like this unless they're really 100% - maybe 1,000% - sure they're going to be successful. Even then, think about it two or three more times before you try it, because the rescue is on the way and that's the best way of getting out of it."

Piracy along the anarchic and impoverished Somali coast, the longest in Africa, has risen in recent years. Somali pirates hold about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group based in Malaysia. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama.

Current TV correspondent Kaj Larson, who has produced a documentary on modern day piracy, said that Somali pirates in recent years has been reluctant to harm their hostages.

"That's because they have such a good business model going and they're making so much money - between $50 million and $150 million in ransom money last year - it's not in their best interest to hurt the hostages. That's certainly helping the situation right now.

"That being said, these are certainly violent men who are well-armed, and the potential [for hostage deaths] always exists."

Larson said the experience of the French commando raid Friday will affect how the crisis involving the American hostage plays out. "You're going to see the U.S. Navy being patient and being steady and waiting and playing the waiting game, waiting these pirates out."

McGowan, likewise, believes the Navy will not the fire upon the pirates. "Unless the circumstances call for it, I don't see them doing that. They're being advised by the FBI, and our advice always is to be patient."

Link to original report: Warships

Books about Somalia and Piracy: Books

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