WASHINGTON — America's 5th Fleet is appealing to the world's navies and law enforcement agencies to step up their response to a spike in incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
The call comes as the 5th Fleet is closely monitoring a pirated ship off the coast of Somalia carrying a cargo of 33 advanced Russian-made T-72 tanks, spare parts, and ammunition. The arms aboard the Faina, a Ukrainian vessel flying the flag of Belize, were reported to be bound for Kenya, though an American military official said they were being shipped to a former rebel group in southern Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
The U.S. Navy stepped up patrols along the Gulf of Aden in August and has deterred 12 incidents of attempted piracy since then, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, said.
Lieutenant Christensen said the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet had a broader mission than to go after pirates. "Our aim and focus is to deter destabilizing activities to create a lawful maritime order," he said. "Piracy is but a small part of that."
Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy sent a destroyer to monitor the Faina, prompting the pirates to decrease their ransom demands for the cargo and 20 hostages to $5 million from $30 million. The ship was seized Thursday.
Lieutenant Christensen said the Navy was as concerned about the crew as it was about the cargo inside the ship's hold.
Joining the American destroyer will be a Russian frigate whose crew will include a special forces team. The Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, was in the Atlantic near the English Channel yesterday and will arrive off the coast of Somalia in week. Another military official said the Russian and American militaries have been in touch about the situation.
Lieutenant Christensen said press reports had sparked a renewed interest in piracy. "Piracy is becoming a bigger deal," he said. "Pirates are becoming increasingly emboldened to hijack ships off the coast."
To that end, the commander of the 5th Fleet, Vice Admiral William Gortney, said in a statement last week that vessels "must take measures to defend their vessels and crews."
Admiral Gortney had announced on September 22 that he lacked the resources to provide 24-hour protection to all of the commercial ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden.
Lieutenant Christensen said the Navy was looking to the International Maritime Organization's upcoming conference, at the end of October, on piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean to help spur more cooperation from not only the navies of other nations but also law enforcement and customs agencies on the ground. "Piracy cannot be solved by one nation," he said. "It is a problem that starts at shore and it's an international problem that requires an international solution."
Among the other responsibilities of Admiral Gortney's fleet are monitoring illicit nuclear and weapons shipments to Iran and monitoring arms shipments to Somalia.
The standoff in the waters off the coast of Somalia appears to be the work of amateurs: The first ransom demand was $20 million, which then increased to $30 million. At one point on the ship, a military official said, the pirates began fighting over how much of the ransom money each would receive.
The incident is an embarrassment to the Russian military, whose troops had manned the Faina. The hijacking also exposes Russia's hand in arming the Sudan People's Liberation Army, a Christian and Animist group that until 2003 was at war with the Muslim government in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. A tenuous peace between the rebels from the south and the government remains.