NAIROBI (Reuters) - The United States is worried Somali pirates may forge ties with terrorist groups but has no evidence of links between the hijackers and al Qaeda, the U.S. military’s Africa commander said on Tuesday.
Africom commander General William Ward told a news conference in Kenya that the international community was looking “very seriously” at piracy, but said it was a complex issue that required collective, comprehensive action.
Scores of attacks this year have brought the pirates millions of dollars in ransoms, ramped up shipping insurance costs and sent foreign navy patrols speeding to the area.
Analysts say some Islamist factions in south Somalia are taking a share of the spoils and using pirates to bring in weapons. There are also fears international terrorist groups may find a safe haven in the failed Horn of Africa nation.
“I do not have any evidence that the pirates have links with al Qaeda. We may speculate and think about it, but I personally do not have any evidence,” Ward told reporters.
The audacious hijack of a supertanker carrying more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil exports has trained world attention on rampant piracy off Somalia’s coast.
Warships from the NATO alliance, the European Union, the United States and other nations are patrolling the seas, but the pirates have seized at least four more vessels since then.
“Piracy is a very complex issue. The oceans are large oceans. I don’t know if you would ever have enough vessels to have coverage of the entire ocean,” said Ward.
He said the deteriorating situation onshore in Somalia was part of the problem and he saw the role of U.S. forces as being in a coordinated international response to tackle piracy.
“It won’t happen overnight because this is something that has to be addressed very comprehensively but I will tell you that the United States sees this as an issue,” he said.
“How we do our part will be a reflection of whatever policy determination is made and then, based on that policy determination, specific actions that might involve military activity,” Ward told reporters.
Somalia has been in turmoil for nearly two decades. Islamist insurgents control the south and launch near daily attacks on government forces in the capital. Feuding warlords hold sway in the rest of the country.
Hardline al Shabaab Islamists have pledged a crackdown on piracy. But the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, said that would not change Washington’s view of the group.
“I think this whole thing is sort of a red herring,” he told the news conference.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the terrorist nature of the organization. So, to me, regardless of whatever they might do with respect to piracy, that doesn’t erase that record. That’s the fundamental issue here.”