LONDON (Reuters) - The U.S. rescue of an American sailor is unlikely to deter the most committed Somali pirates and could make future hijackings more violent, complicating efforts to tame the lawless seas off the Horn of Africa.
Regional experts do not expect Washington to follow Sunday’s operation with an assault on pirate redoubts onshore to end their defiance of an international flotilla of naval patrols.
Not only would that endanger 260 other hostages, it could also play into the hands of Islamist militants and reduce Washington’s clout in the peace-building that remains the only long-term solution to rebuilding the world’s most failed state.
But any move to militarize the overall U.S. approach to Somalia following the killing of three pirates in Sunday’s rescue risks boosting anti-American feelings in a country already deeply suspicious of U.S. motives, experts say.
That in turn could complicate the provision of international support to a fledgling transitional government that is trying to strengthen its authority and end 18 years of armed chaos.
The U.S. military is alive to the dangers of escalation. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, head of the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said of the rescue: “This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it.”
In Mogadishu, Hassan Mohamed, an activist of the Peace and Human Rights Network, said further U.S. armed action against pirates would stir political tensions already inflamed by a two-year Ethiopian occupation that ended only in January.
“The best solution is to support the Somali government so it can act against the pirates. If this is done the pirates can be destroyed,” he said by telephone from Mogadishu.
“It’s true that Somalis don’t want these piracy problems: The gangsters who used to make problems for people with their checkpoints on land are now making problems for us out at sea.”
“But Americans have not been welcome in Somalia since they supported the Ethiopian invasion. The feeling is that Americans want to destroy us. The feeling is that America doesn’t want Somalia to stand on its own two feet.”
He said the best way for Washington to suppress piracy off Somalia was to help the country achieve stability onshore, where a young interim government headed by a moderate Islamist faces attacks by al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-aligned guerrilla force.
Al Shabaab’s main foe until the end of January was an Ethiopian occupation force sent into the country with tacit U.S. approval in 2006 to crush supposed al Qaeda activity.
Experts say the pirates are well aware they would trigger painful Western retribution if they allied with al Shabaab.
“The pirates know that if they collude with al Qaeda or al-Shabaab that will be a game changer, and they like the game as played just fine,” Somali expert Ken Mankhaus told a web discussion forum hosted by The Washington Post.
Even in the short term, an increased Western military effort against the pirates would do little in practical terms to stop a lucrative ransom trade, analysts say.
The seas are just too vast to be patrolled effectively and the incentives for the pirates and the powerful local business interests they serve are just too great.
A Somali academic in Mogadishu said: “Somalis are not intimidated by American muscle. Revenge culture is prevalent here: These guys will not fade away and say ‘I’m going home’.”
“The American problem has always been ‘short-term, quick fix, macho man’. It does not resolve the core issue,” said the expert, who declined to be identified for security reasons.
Washington should do more to help the new government extend its rule and counter fears it is in league with regional giant Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic foe, the academic said.
“If it does not, then there are many reasons for piracy to continue. Number one, this is a gold rush -- death is not a deterrent. And number two, the people involved are not nobodies. There is investment in this by daring and committed people.”
Commander Chris Davies of the NATO Maritime Component Command, a force combating Somalia piracy, said the Western response would be adapted as circumstances dictated but big changes in policy were unlikely.
“Thus far, it’s not political. It’s not fundamentalists. It’s not terrorists. It’s moneymaking,” he said. “That’s the message we’ve picked up. The pattern has been that hostages have been treated very well. Broadly the worst we’ve seen is the occasional beating.
“You could arm the merchant ships but that has legal problems, and who’s to say the pirates won’t then escalate the situation? They have the money to buy more arms.”
He said ships should continue to follow industry guidelines intended to reduce vulnerability: “Inform the maritime authorities (of the voyage). Use the internationally-recognized (Gulf of Aden) transit corridor. Use speed. Use maneuvers. Use water cannon to deter attack. Keep a good lookout.”
Editing by Andrew Roche
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