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US targets pirates off Somalia

NAIROBI, Kenya - The US military has stepped up activities in the pirate-infested waters off Somalia, going to the aid of hijacked cargo ships twice this week. American medics treated wounded North Korean sailors on one vessel, and the Navy was tracking another after destroying two pirate skiffs lashed to it.

Somalia, on the eastern rim of the Horn of Africa, has had no functioning government since slipping into chaos in 1991 at the beginning of its long civil war. Its waters are among the most pirate-infested anywhere, with more than two dozen ship hijackings this year.

Boats carrying pirates frequently cast off from Somalia's long, arrowhead-shaped shoreline, heading to busy shipping lanes to take over container ships and seize their cargo and crew.

The US military acted on tips and distress calls to help two cargo ships hijacked since Sunday, including the North Korean vessel whose 22-member crew fought off the pirates in a bloody battle. At least one pirate died and three North Koreans were wounded.

US sailors boarded the Dai Hong Dan on Tuesday at its invitation to treat the injured.

US military officials said long-standing tradition on the high seas dictates help for any sailor in distress, regardless of their nationality or their vessel's home port.

"It really comes down to a fundamental issue: We're responsible mariners and we help all sorts of people. We help people on small dhows who have problems with their engines. . . . We've helped Iranian fishermen, given them water," said Commander Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. "When we get a distress call, we respond. It's beyond nationality."

Robertson said the Navy hoped to boost security in the area's seas.

"What we're looking to do is promote lawful maritime order. It's about piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling, terrorism. If we can deter piracy, we can deter those other things, too," she said.

The Navy is considering increasing patrols in the shipping lanes off Somalia, perhaps trying to set up "sting" operations using commando ships posing as merchant vessels to draw pirates.

The United States also has supported efforts to quell an Islamic insurgency in Somalia.

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