International flotilla now patrolling Somali waters

U.S. warships watched a hijacked vessel laden with tanks while other gunboats patrolled the dangerous waters off Somalia, but pirates still seized another freighter this week – and now hold about a dozen despite the international effort to protect a major shipping lane.

Military vessels from 10 nations are now converging on the world's most dangerous waters, but analysts and a Somali government official say the campaign won't halt piracy unless it also confronts the quagmire that is Somalia.

“World powers have neglected Somalia for years on end, and now its problems are touching the world, they have started on the wrong footing,” said Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, adviser to the president of Puntland, the semi-autonomous Somali region that is the pirates' base.

The continued seizures of vessels highlights the difficulties of patrolling the waters off Somalia, the chaotic Horn of Africa country that has resisted intervention, including a disastrous U.S. mission in 1996. The chief concern is that the brazen attacks could fuel terrorism and make one of the world's major shipping routes too dangerous and expensive to traverse.

The area in question is the Gulf of Aden, a 920-by-300-mile basin separating the Arabian coast from the Horn of Africa. It is used daily by about 250 ships, said U.S. Navy spokeswoman Lt. Stephanie Murdock.

The area was the scene of the deadly al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole off Yemen. And it is a hub of illegal activity, including gunrunning and people- and drug-smuggling.

Ships slow down off Somalia's northern coast waiting to enter the Red Sea en route to Arab refineries and the Suez Canal – a route used to transport more than 10 percent of the world's petroleum and Asian goods to Europe and North America.

“A large ship sunk in the approach to the Suez Canal would have a devastating impact on international trade,” said Roger Middleton, an expert on the region, in a paper published by Chatham House, a London think tank.

The Navy said that U.S. and coalition vessels and aircraft have thwarted 15 pirate attacks since they set up a “maritime security patrol area” in the Gulf of Aden on Aug. 22.