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Piracy Down; Hard Legal Problems Remain

Bottom line on piracy off Somalia: it's down in the face of increased patrols and greater coordination between the US, China, Russia, EU and NATO. The problem spiked in August with 12 ships seized in just a few days. Since then "significant strides" have been made but piracy will remain episodic as long as Somalia remains poor, overfished and virtually ungoverned. That was the message yesterday from Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of Central Command's naval forces, and State Department officials before the House Armed Services Committee.

My favorite detail from the hearing: China and the US Navy communicate using Yahoo email accounts. Adm. Gortney told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that the US has suggested that China post a liaison officer with the EU/NATO force patrolling the area and to initiate bridge to bridge radio comms. No takers so far.

So far, 250 pirates have been seized. Of those, 130 were disarmed and released, 110 disarmed and turned over for prosecution, and 7 were turned over yesterday to Kenya for prosecution,

So far this year there have been 26 attacks on merchant vessels, with 4 ships seized. For some perspective, roughly 33,000 ships sail the Gulf of Aden each year and 42 ships have been pirated -- about 0.13 percent of the total, according to Adm. Gortney.

Combined Task Force 151 and other navy assets have seized or destroyed 28 pirate vessels and confiscated 133 small arms, 28 RPGs, 51 RPG projectiles, and 21 ladders/grappling hooks.

But legal problems remain a sticking point. Navy ships can grab pirates, but unless they hang 'em from the yardarms they need to turn the pirates over to someone for prosecution. While the US has relatively expansive laws concerning attacks on American overseas or piracy, most other countries have much more restrictive laws that require an attack on a ship flying their flag or an attack on one of their citizens, according to a State Department official at yesterday's hearing.

A conference is underway in Copenhagen this week to come up with more effective anti-piracy laws, Stephen Mull, the State Department's acting undersecretary for international security and arms control, told the committee.

However, in the near term, Kenya has helped greatly in this, signing an MOU with the US in late January that allowed the first prosecutions to get started with yesterday's transfer of the seven detainees.

Meanwhile, many DoDBuzz readers will remember the story we broke about Michelle Lynn Ballarin and her efforts to help negotiate release of the pirated crews and their ships through her contacts in Somalia. After speaking with us, Ballarin went quiet. So I asked Mull what role she might have had in freeing the Sirius Star and any other ships held by Somali pirates. He smiled tightly and said: "We really can't comment on her role." All of which makes us wonder just what it was in the end.

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