* Officials say suspects were seized in February
* U.S. lawmaker says piracy threats fed by globalization
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday turned over seven suspected Somali pirates to Kenya for prosecution for the first time under a bilateral pact that opened the way for the U.S. Navy to capture pirates on the high seas.
Officials told the U.S. Congress the custody transfer occurred as 28 countries affected by recent pirate attacks met on Thursday in Copenhagen to seek consensus on further efforts to prosecute suspects captured by an international naval force patrolling off the coast of East Africa.
Piracy in the Gulf of Aden has become a major problem over the past six months, forcing maritime insurance rates higher and providing pirates with ransoms averaging between $1.5 million and $2 million, according to the U.S. Navy.
Seven ships and 123 mariners are currently being held by pirates.
The region’s waterways, which connect the Middle East, Africa and Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal, include some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“These threats are all fed in part by globalization, which radicalizes significant numbers of people who feel alienated and disenfranchised,” said U.S. Representative Ike Skelton, Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
Defense and diplomatic officials, who appeared at a hearing before Skelton’s panel, said the seven suspects transferred to Kenyan custody were captured by the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Vella Gulf on Feb. 11, after a thwarted attempt to board a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel.
It was the first time the U.S. Navy has exercised a bilateral agreement reached with Kenya in January that allows U.S.-captured pirate suspects to be tried in Kenyan courts.
“This shows the agreement works,” said Stephen Mull, acting undersecretary of state for international security and arms control.
Mull said the United States wants other countries to agree to prosecute pirates — an option Washington has carefully avoided. Other interested countries include Tanzania as well as those at the meeting in Copenhagen, which include countries as far away as Japan.
Getting other countries to participate is key because of the large number of pirates involved in attacks. Mull said as many as 30 pirates are believed to take part in any single incident. Last year, there were 111 acts of piracy off the African coast.
“We can’t just dump all the cases on Kenya,” he told Reuters.
An unprecedented effort by naval forces from 18 countries including Russia and China has helped curb attacks on cargo vessels from a November peak of 37 incidents to 17 in January and seven in February.
International counter-piracy efforts have made it harder for pirates to carry out successful attacks, according to Navy data that show the success rate falling to 15 percent this year from 38 percent in 2008.
But a U.S. commander who oversees a multinational naval coalition warned lawmakers it is not clear the international effort can last long enough to combat a piracy problem driven by Somalia’s crushing poverty and political instability.
“The question is: where will we be a year from now? Will we continue to be effective?” Vice-Admiral William Gortney said.
“There are a lot of resources being invested in this. Will the (European Union), will NATO, will the other nations continue to do that? Keeping this international support down there ... is very very important.”
The international coalition is expected to grow in coming months with the arrival of ships from Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Belgium and Poland. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)