WASHINGTON, April 13 (UPI) -- U.S. Navy warships supported by helicopter gunships tracked four Somali pirates and their American captive in the Horn of Africa throughout the weekend as American negotiators tried to obtain the release of the hostage. Reports from the region indicated that negotiations had broken down, and on Easter Sunday Navy snipers killed three of the pirates and freed the American, Capt. Richard Phillips, master of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama.
Phillips gave himself up to the pirates Wednesday as they climbed aboard his vessel using hooks and ropes and fired their guns in the air as a warning sign that they meant business.
Phillips ordered his men to lock themselves in a cabin and allowed the pirates to take him hostage in order to save his crew. U.S. Navy SEALs arrived later on the scene and escorted the rest of the crew, 19 American sailors, to safer waters in Kenya's port of Mombasa.
The area off Somalia's coast is one of the world's busiest waterways and one of the most dangerous to international shipping. This past weekend alone, two other European ships came under attack from pirates.
French naval forces intervened Friday to free a sailboat and liberate hostages captured by Somali pirates, but one of the hostages was killed in the crossfire.
On Saturday an Italian tugboat was seized off Somalia's northern coast as it was pulling barges, according to a NATO spokesperson. This was corroborated by the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome, which said that 16 crew members, including 10 Italians, were aboard the tug. The others were five Romanians and a Croatian, according to the Italian company that owns the ship.
These modern-day pirates who operate from bases in Somalia, a country where law and order is absent, are cause for serious concern. Aside from the threat of piracy to the world's busiest shipping lanes, the pirates add to the general state of instability in the region.
With pressure growing on Islamist movements in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arab world, the Horn of Africa offers Islamists an ideal location where they can re-establish themselves and prosper.
There is a big risk of what happened in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets repeating itself in Somalia. Much as in Afghanistan, Somalia is a state with a weak government that has no control over much of the territory that in principle should be under its authority.
Local militias, many of them adherents of strict Islamist theology, offer a fertile breeding ground to al-Qaida and its affiliates. If and when the day Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida begin to feel the pressure in their current safe haven, the region around the Horn of Africa will look very enticing.
The solution to the Somali pirate crisis requires a two-pronged approach, both military and political, that must be implemented in tandem; otherwise neither is likely to produce any concrete results.
The first step requires a joint special forces task force to strike at the rear bases used by the pirates and to destroy their seaborne crafts, thereby basically crippling them.
The second step would necessitate an aggressive economic restructuring plan for the country in order to create jobs for those who might be tempted to follow in the footsteps of the pirates.
The United States, the European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Japan, India, China and Russia all have vested interests in security putting an end to this ongoing threat to international shipping in one of the world's most traveled shipping lanes.
It is imperative, however, for the economic plan to be put into motion at the same time as the military operation so as not to allow al-Qaida and its affiliates to make inroads amidst an economic wilderness.
In the long run, bailing out Somalia will be far less expensive than all the ransom money the pirates will extort from the international community.
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)