WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush has been briefed about increasing attacks by Somali pirates off east Africa, and the United States is consulting with other U.N. Security Council members on ways to combat the threat, the White House said on Wednesday.
Calling it a "a very complicated issue," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino gave no hint of what, if any, action the United States might take following the hijacking earlier this week of a Saudi supertanker with a $100 million oil cargo.
But she told reporters, "The goal would be to try to help get this ship to safety, secure the crew and then work with our international partners to try to alleviate the piracy problem, full stop."
The rise of piracy off Somalia this year has driven up insurance costs, made some shipping companies divert around South Africa and prompted an unprecedented military response from NATO, the European Union and others.
The U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes counterpiracy measures will expire on December 2, according to U.S. officials who say they are pressing for an extension.
But Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the piracy problem requires a larger international effort to bring political stability and economic aid to poverty-stricken Somalia.
"You could have all the navies in the world having all their ships out there, you know, it's not going to ever solve this problem. It requires a holistic approach," he told reporters.
Even a systematic attempt to capture pirates in international waters would require "a more global, systematic agreement on how to deal with pirates once caught," Morrell said. At present, it is unclear who would hold or try them.
U.S. defense officials have also stressed the need for more protective measures aboard commercial ships including the presence of armed security guards.
Pirates have taken a Thai fishing boat, a Greek bulk carrier and a Hong Kong-flagged ship heading to Iran since Saturday's capture of the supertanker. Saudi Arabia said the supertanker's owners were in talks over a possible ransom, despite official reservations about such negotiation.
All told, Somali pirates are currently holding at least 18 ships and 330 mariners from 25 countries hostage, according to figures released by the Defense Department.
The figures also showed that 95 piracy attacks have been reported in the Gulf of Aden this year so far and that 39 have proven successful.
"The president has been briefed about it, and ensuring the safety and well-being of the crew is of paramount importance in preventing or dealing with issues of piracy," Perino said when asked whether any unilateral or concerted response was planned for dealing with the problem.
"We're working with other members of the Security Council, right now, to see if there are actions that we can do to more effectively fight against piracy and prevent it," she said.
Perino said a key problem is that modern-day piracy is "much more dangerous, and they have ... a lot more weapons."