UNITED NATIONS - The U.S. is proposing that the United Nations authorize tracking down Somali pirates not only at sea, but on land and in Somali air space with cooperation from the African country's weak U.N.-backed government.
The United States is circulating a draft U.N. Security Council resolution on the issue, as part of one of the Bush administration's last major foreign policy initiatives. The resolution proposes that all nations and regional groups cooperating with Somalia's government in the fight against piracy and armed robbery "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia."
Somalia's government is welcoming the U.S. initiative. Somali government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon said Thursday the government will offer any help it can.
If the U.S. military gets involved, it would mark a dramatic turnabout from the U.S. experience in Somalia in 1992-1993 that culminated in a deadly military clash in Mogadishu followed by a humiliating withdrawal of American forces.
U.S. Navy ships already are involved, in small numbers, in patroling the waters off Somalia. A senior administration official in Washington said Thursday that the proposed additional U.N. authority would give the U.S. military more options in confronting the pirates but does not mean the U.S. is planning a ground assault.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the resolution would simply provide the possibility of taking action ashore, including from Somalia's air space, in the event of timely intelligence on the pirates' whereabouts. The official said it should not be assumed that such action would necessarily involve U.S. forces.
Without committing more U.S. Navy ships, the Bush administration wants to tap into what officials see as a growing enthusiasm in Europe and elsewhere for more effective coordinated action against the Somali pirates. Administration officials view the current effort as lacking coherence, as pirates score more and bigger shipping prizes.
The U.S. resolution is to be presented at a session on Somalia Tuesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
It proposes that for a year, nations "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace, to interdict those who are using Somali territory to plan, facilitate or undertake acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea and to otherwise prevent those activities."
The draft also says Somalia's government - whose president wrote the U.N. twice this month already seeking help - suffers from a "lack of capacity, domestic legislation, and clarity about how to dispose of pirates after their capture."
Britain agreed Thursday to hand over pirate suspects captured off Somalia's lawless coast to face trial in Kenya, removing a key legal obstacle to prosecuting them, a British diplomat said at a U.N.-organized piracy conference.
In the past, foreign navies patrolling the Somali coast have been reluctant to detain suspects because of uncertainties over where they would face trial as Somalia has no effective central government or legal system.
"Nations are very wary of taking pirates onboard their ships," said Lord Alan West, British undersecretary of state for security and counterterrorism. "It is extremely difficult - where can you put them - if you're not going back to your home country, and even going back to your home country causes immense problems in terms of legal prosecutions."
Britain does not currently have any detained suspects. But in the past some suspects have been released by other members of the international naval coalition despite being found with weapons and boarding equipment such as ladders and grappling hooks.
The agreement is based on an ad hoc deal that saw eight suspected pirates brought to Kenya by a British warship last month. Their trial is expected to take approximately a year. The European Union is currently completing a similar arrangement.
Piracy off Somalia has intensified in recent months, with more attacks against a wider range of targets. There was an unsuccessful assault on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Aden, which links the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. In September, pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter loaded with 33 battle tanks and on Nov. 15 they seized a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude.
About 100 attacks on ships have been reported off the Somali coast this year. Forty vessels have been hijacked, with 14 still remaining in the hands of pirates along with more than 250 crew members, according to maritime officials.
On Thursday, a U.N. anti-piracy conference attended by representatives of more than 40 nations failed to produce a consensual legal framework for tackling piracy but recommended regulation for armed guards on ships and establishing a common policy to discourage ransom payments.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said his government had discussed putting armed guards onboard ships from the navies of friendly nations and had also had approaches from private companies.
The conference also recommended targeting the financial networks that support the pirates and building Somali coast guard forces. Somali pirates have taken in an estimated $30 million in ransom this year.