The United States is watching the recent increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia, a senior US military official said as Defence Secretary Jim Mattis visited an important military base in Djibouti.
The rise in piracy attacks has at least partially been driven by famine and drought in the region, the top US military commander in Africa said during Mattis’ visit as part of a week-long trip to the Middle East and Africa.
The United States uses the base in Djibouti, at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, as a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.
The recent attacks by Somali pirates comes after years without a reported incident. Attacks peaked with 237 in 2011 but then declined after ship owners improved security measures and international naval forces stepped up patrols.
This month has seen new attacks, with two ships captured and a third rescued by Indian and Chinese forces after the crew radioed for help and locked themselves in a safe room.
“The bottom line is there have been a half dozen or so incidents,” Marine General Thomas Waldhauser said at a press conference standing alongside Mattis.
“We’re not ready to say there is a trend there yet but we’ll continue to watch,” he said adding one reason for the increase was famine and drought in the region since some vessels targeted were carrying food and oil.
According to the UN World Food Programme more than 20 million people from Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are at risk of dying from starvation within the next six months.
In South Sudan alone, more than 100,000 people are suffering from famine with a further million on the brink of starvation.
Mattis added while the situation was being watched, he did not expect a US military response to the surge in piracy.
A US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said international shipping companies became complacent about security, which could also help explain the rise in piracy incidents.
MILITANCY IN THE REGION
Djibouti is strategically important as it is on the route to the Suez Canal. The barren nation, sandwiched between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, also hosts Japanese and French bases.
The US base, which has about 4,000 personnel, is located just miles from a Chinese one, still under construction, which has caused concern to some US officials.
Mattis’ visit to the base comes as the United States increases pressure on militant groups such as al Shabaab in the region.
The White House recently granted the US military broader authority to strike al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants in Somalia.
Waldhauser said he had not yet used the new authority given to him by the White House.
Al Shabaab has been able to carry out deadly bombings despite losing most of its territory to African Union peacekeepers supporting the Somali government.
On Sunday, a military vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region, killing at least six soldiers and injuring another eight.
The US recently sent troops to Somalia to help train the Somali National Army.
It is also carrying out strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
AQAP boasts one of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. It has been a persistent concern to the US government since a 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.