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LONDON (Reuters) - Cooperation between Somalia's al Qaeda linked militants and pirate gangs is growing as the al Shabaab group becomes more desperate for funding, the head of the U.N.'s counter-piracy unit said on Thursday.
In recent days Kenya launched a cross-border incursion into Somalia to flush out rebels from its frontier area after a series of kidnappings of foreigners in Kenya. The abductions were carried out by gunmen thought to be linked to al Shabaab.
"There is a growing link and growing cooperation between al Shabaab who are desperate for funding and resources with other criminal gangs and with pirates," said Colonel John Steed.
Steed, the principal military adviser to the U.N. special envoy to Somalia and head of the envoy's counter-piracy unit, said pirates were not part of al Shabaab.
"Pirates are one of those potential sources of large amounts of money so there a natural linkage between Shabaab's desire for funding to support their activities and money that pirates are getting from ransoms," he told Reuters Insider TV on the sidelines of a piracy conference in London.
The President of the semi-autonomous Somali state of Puntland Abdirahman Mohamud Farole believed the two had links.
"We are almost sure about that otherwise in the Shabaab held areas pirates will not operate," he told Insider.
A senior Somali commander has said the Kenyan-Somali operation's aim was to rid Kismayu, a port city that serves as the rebels' nerve centre for operations, of the militants.
"We have seen people taken from the coast of Kenya and then facilitated all the way through al Shabaab held areas and delivered to an area held by pirates and negotiated by pirate gangs," Steed told the conference.
"They have been taken there to be used as human shields to prevent attacks from other states."
Analysts and diplomats in the region have warned that Somali pirates were likely to turn to softer targets, such as tourists in Kenya, in response to more robust defence of merchant vessels.
Steed told Reuters that pirates taking ships and their crews hostages for lucrative ransoms would remain their main focus. He said international military forces were looking to target gangs not just at sea, but in air operations and using Somali forces on the ground.
"Clearly the conclusion will be that the pirates when they are forming up on the beaches are at their most vulnerable and that's the point where they need to react," he said.
Farole said Puntland, which has arrested hundreds of pirates in its territory although is struggling with a lack of resources, would back such operations "if required in cooperation with the local Somali authorities".
"Within our limits we will do everything we can but we are appealing to the international community to support us in establishing our marine police force to be operative now," Farole said.