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Originally published April 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 14, 2009 at 12:52 AM

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Pirates: After the U.S. rescue, now what?

Still in the public consciousness is the "Black Hawk Down" episode in Somalia in 1993, where two U.S. helicopters were shot down and 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. So Obama and his advisers are wary of becoming deeply involved in the region again.

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama vowed Monday to "halt the rise of piracy" off the coast of Africa after the dramatic rescue of a U.S. merchant captain, foreshadowing a longer and potentially more treacherous struggle ahead.

Obama permitted Navy SEALs to shoot the pirates holding the captain, Richard Phillips. But policymakers and experts said the precision takedown of three Somalis with three bullets would certainly be easier than wiping out the larger threat in the shipping lanes or reversing the instability that makes Somalia a breeding ground for pirates and Islamic terrorists.

Still in the public consciousness is the "Black Hawk Down" episode in Somalia in 1993, where two U.S. helicopters were shot down and 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. So Obama and his advisers are wary of becoming deeply involved in the region again. That wariness comes as Obama is already trying to end a war in Iraq and win one in Afghanistan. White House officials Monday played down suggestions that the United States could attack pirate bases on shore.

Other options before the administration, according to experts:

• Deploying more ships to patrol the region;

• Pressing commercial shipping companies to stop paying ransoms and to do more to defend their vessels;

• Pressing other nations to help capture pirates and bring them to justice;

• And doing more to build up a fledgling transitional government in Somalia.

"All I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the Situation Room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told students and faculty members at the Marine Corps War University in Quantico, Va.

The pirate prisoner

While the national-security team discusses the long-term challenge, the Justice Department said it was deliberating whether to try the lone surviving pirate in the United States or to turn him over to Kenya for trial.

The rescue of Phillips drew widespread praise for the Navy and Obama, but some experts warned that it could escalate the campaign by Somali pirates who have vowed to take revenge on Americans and are holding more than 200 hostages from other countries.

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"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region," Obama said. "And to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on African affairs, sent a letter to Obama calling for a comprehensive strategy to shore up the new transitional government in Somalia. Feingold called central authority the ultimate solution to piracy.

"People are talking about this as a piracy issue," Feingold said. "That is not the core issue here. It is a symptom of a disunified government."

Somalia has careened between lawlessness and rule by warlords for most of the past two decades, providing a haven not only for pirates but also for Islamic extremists.

No military solution

Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Africa subcommittee, said any military response would have to be fully supported and sustained.

"We cannot do what we did in Somalia before," he said. "Brave soldiers died. So everyone, especially this administration, needs to be careful before pushing that button."

Bobby Pittman Jr., who was President George W. Bush's senior adviser on Africa, said finding pirates on the open seas would be akin to hunting for "a needle in the haystack," while attacking camps on ground would lead to civilian casualties.

Gates said the challenge was made harder by the lack of a strong central government in Somalia, raising the possibility that it would be necessary to work with functioning local officials instead of leaders at the national level.

"There is no purely military solution to it," he said at the Marine Corps War University, according to a military news service. "And as long as you've got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there's really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids."

Congressman

escapes shelling

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Rep. Donald Payne, chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, narrowly escaped a mortar attack Monday as he was ending a visit to Mogadishu, Somalia's bullet-ridden capital, that he undertook against the advice of the Obama administration.

Just a day after U.S. military snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed a kidnapped sea captain, eliciting vows of revenge from pirates and other Somalis, several mortar rounds exploded in the vicinity of Payne's plane as it was taking off from Mogadishu. At least 10 civilians were wounded.

The congressman, a Democrat from Newark, N.J., was unhurt. It was unclear if insurgents who routinely shell the airport were trying to hit his plane or were simply unleashing another assault on the city's main lifeline.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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