Somalia authorized foreign powers Wednesday to use force against pirates holding a ship loaded with tanks for $20 million ransom, raising the stakes for bandits being watched by the U.S. Navy.
There was no indication, however, that the Americans or anyone else was preparing to take action.
Last week's hijacking of the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina – carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, rifles and heavy weapons – was the highest profile act of piracy off this Horn of Africa nation this year. Several U.S. ships patrolled nearby and American helicopters buzzed overhead.
Moscow also has sent a warship to protect the few Russian hostages on board, but it was a week away from the coast of central Somalia where the Faina has been anchored since Sept. 25. Most of the 20 crew members are Ukrainian or Latvian, and one Russian has died, apparently of illness.
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A U.N. Security Council resolution in June gave permission to nations to send warships into Somalia's territorial waters to stop “piracy and armed robbery at sea” if such operations were taken in cooperation with the weak Somali government in Mogadishu.
Mohammed Jammer Ali, acting director of the Somali Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he was giving new permission for such actions.
“The international community has permission to fight with the pirates,” he said.
Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf, also appealed to foreign powers. “The government has lost patience and now wants to fight pirates with the help of the international community,” he said in a radio address.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to comment on any possible military operation but said the U.S. remained resolved to keep the Faina's military cargo from falling into the wrong hands – meaning Somali militants with links to al-Qaida.
The U.S. military has conducted airstrikes in Somalia and is known to have sent special forces troops in on the ground to go after key militants there.
Whitman would not give details of any new or existing agreement that the U.S. has with Somalia's U.N.-supported government, which is fighting Islamic insurgents and has little control in much of the country.
The U.S. “works closely with its partners in the region to identify, locate, capture and if necessary kill terrorists where they operate, plan their operations or seek save harbor,” Whitman said.
The Russian navy's chief spokesman played down the possibility of the use of force.
“Taking forceful measures, for obvious reasons, is an extreme measure, as this could create a threat to the lives of the international crew of the cargo ship,” Capt. Igor Dygalo said.
In a statement, he said the task of the frigate heading to the waters off Somalia was to protect Russian ships and suggested it would mainly prevent further pirate attacks.