Hutton criticised for Somalia comments

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The international community must take action to restore good governance to the "basket case" state of Somalia to prevent it becoming a crucible for terrorism like Afghanistan before September 11, Defence Secretary John Hutton warned yesterday.

Mr Hutton warned of the danger that the pirates who are reaping multi-million pound ransoms by seizing ships off the Somali coast could link up with Islamist extremists in the east African state.

Although there is no evidence at present of the pirates forging links with extremist groups, the international community must take "very seriously" the risk that the illicit money they generate may be used to fund terror, he said.

Speaking from Bahrain, where he has been attending a security summit on the threat from piracy, Mr Hutton said it was "too early to speculate" about direct military intervention by international forces in Somalia.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is asking the United Nations to authorise "all necessary measures" to thwart the pirates - widely interpreted as a license to target their bases on shore as well as the boats they use to intercept shipping in the Gulf of Aden.

Mr Hutton told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend: "The world can't stand by and see the pirates carry on in the way that they are. We have a collective responsibility to act and many nations, I am glad to say, are stepping up to the plate and trying to deal with this problem in a sensible way."

Asked whether he was concerned over potential links between the pirates and al Qaida-inspired terrorists, the Defence Secretary said: "That could be a danger. At the moment, we don't have any information that indicates that the pirates are working in conjunction with the terrorists or any extreme Islamist groups, but we have got to watch out for that.

"What we do know is that the pirates are able to generate very substantial sums of money from the ransoms they are generating. We want to be sure where that money is going. We don't want that money to be used to fund insurgencies or terrorism around the world.

"I think we have got to take this risk very seriously. We have got to target both the pirates and the money to make sure that there's no leakage into other areas of criminal activity and terrorism."

The Royal Navy is currently involved in a multi-national task force guarding vessels off the Somali coast.

But Mr Hutton said that beyond the short-term imperative to protect shipping, the international community has to take action to restore law and order in Somalia itself, which has been without effective government for much of the last two decades.

"Somalia is a basket case," he said. "It is a classic area where you have got ungoverned space, no effective state apparatus and criminality and potential terrorism.

"The world community has got to address this problem seriously and we need to look very carefully at what we can do together with our allies in the international community to restore law and order to that very troubled part of the world."

Asked if this could mean direct military intervention, Mr Hutton responded: "It is far too early to speculate about that. Right now, our mission is dealing with the immediate problem that pirates pose to international shipping on the high seas, but there needs to be proper discussions of course about how we can properly deal with this problem in the long term."

He added: "One of the biggest dangers we face at the moment is from terrorism that is allowed to be nurtured and to receive succour and support in these failing regimes around the world.

"We can't allow that to happen, because the first thing we know will happen is that these terrorists will turn up in our own streets and our own towns and communities causing death and destruction in Britain.

"We are determined to make sure we tackle at root the terrorists who pose a mortal danger to our own security.

"One thing we have learnt to our own cost is if we don't deal with these problems when they start to arise - and that was what happened with Afghanistan and 9/11 and the exporting of al Qaida violence and hatred and terrorism around the world - we could rue the day.

"We have got to be alert to the danger and work with our friends and allies around the world in trying to address this."