The Unites States Navy has its eye on the land bases of Somali pirates, a US commander warned in Cape Town.

Admiral Mark Fitgerald, commander of US naval forces in Europe and Africa, was speaking to media on board the cruiser USS Monterey, in the Cape Town harbour.

He said 20,000 ships passed the Somali coast every year, and to defend them all would require a naval force that did not exist any more.

“That said, we know where the pirates live on land, and… I guess we won’t go any further,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t predict, nor do I have knowledge of any operations there.

“But it’s pretty clear where these people are coming out of. We’ll see what happens.”

Shipping off the Somali coast has been plagued by a wave of piracy, often by attackers demanding massive ransoms. Last week pirates hijacked the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 Soviet-designed tanks and weapons.

The Faina, with 20 crew members on board, was anchored Friday near the central Somali town of Hobyo, monitored by six US warships within a 15km radius.

Fitgerald also said the US had no intention of establishing a land base in Africa for its controversial Africom “at least in the near future”.

Africom, the new US military command for Africa, came into operation last week, with the proclaimed aim of seeking to prevent conflicts and bolster security on the continent.

Fitgerald said there had been a lot of internal discussion that ended up leaking out and raised expectations about a presence on the continent.

“That was all premature discussion . I think people when they sat back and looked at it, said what we really need to do is focus on the mission and not on where we’re going to put people.”

Africom was not about “basing”, but rather about the concept of “how do we service Africa”. He said Africom, which is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany, wanted to build capacity and capability in Africa so Africans could start fixing their own problems. It would have a non-permanent footprint in those areas that needed to be served.

“I don’t think you’ll see permanent presence. I don’t think you’ll see temporary presence for a fixed duration for certain issues,” he said. From the navy’s standpoint, the focus at the moment was on two areas – the Gulf of Guinea, and the Somalia region, Fitzgerald said.

African critics have sought to link Africom to the increasing reliance of the US on imports of oil from Africa, especially the crude-rich Gulf of Guinea. Nigeria has already refused to host Africom and has made known its unwillingness to have it based anywhere on African soil.

Fitgerald and the Monterey are in Cape Town for the goodwill visit of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which arrived on Saturday and is anchored in Table Bay.