EU launches anti-piracy mission off Somalia coast

December 9th, 2008 - 11:01 pm ICT by IANS  

Brussels, Dec 9 (DPA) The European Union (EU) naval mission to Somalia was formally launched Tuesday, despite unresolved legal questions about how detained pirates might be brought to justice.Code named “Atlanta,” the year-long maritime mission is the first of its kind by the EU, relying on up to six warships and two or three maritime patrol aircraft at any one time.

The mission will be carried out by frigates and heavyweight destroyers, with helicopter support and satellite surveillance of the Gulf of Aden.

Its priority will be to escort United Nations vessels delivering food aid to Africa. The mission will also put armed parties aboard the ships used by the World Food Programme as they transit through Somali waters in a bid to deter pirates.

“We have a specific mandate to contribute to reducing piracy and ensuring humanitarian access,” the mission’s operational commander, Rear Admiral Phillip Jones, said.

“And I would be the first to admit that a naval force in itself cannot completely eradicate piracy,” Jones said, noting that the operation was meant to patrol thousands of square miles of seas.

“We could have a force of hundreds and hundreds of ships and still have gaps in our patrol area,” Jones said, “but I am content that (the forces at our disposal) give us sufficient ability to make a contribution to all of the specified tasks that I have been given.”

British and French vessels are already in the area, and will soon be joined by a Greek warship, officials said. Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands have also vowed to contribute to the mission.

Negotiations are currently under way with non-EU governments on how to coordinate the patrols. India and Russia are among the countries that have also deployed anti-piracy warships to the area.

While declining to elaborate on the rules of engagement, Jones said the EU mission would be able to resort to the use of force against pirates if necessary.

Monday, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he hoped that no use of force would be needed.

The mission’s commander also conceded Tuesday that questions remained about exactly when pirates may be arrested, as well as which national jurisdiction would be tasked with bringing suspects to justice.

Last week, for instance, a Danish warship ended up rescuing seven stranded armed pirates, rather than arresting them, since they could not be certain of their intentions.

Jones said the EU mission would be facing a similar dilemma, unless the suspects were caught red-handed.

He conceded that the issue of where suspects should be tried in court would have to be decided on a “case-by-case” basis, including whether the arrest took place in Somali waters or on the high seas.

At the same time, the admiral sought to reassure observers by saying that suspects would not be handed over to countries that enforce the death penalty or where they could risk being mistreated.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there have been almost 100 attempts at piracy in the region this year, with around 40 of them successful.

One of the most prominent hijackings involved the Sirius Star supertanker, which was carrying $100 million worth of crude oil when it was taken. Negotiations on a multimillion-dollar ransom are still under way.

The scare has prompted German tour operator Hapag-Lloyd to allow passengers to disembark from its cruise ship before it sails through the Gulf of Aden.

The 246 German passengers and a large number of crew are to leave the MS Columbus at a port in Yemen and fly to Dubai, where they will rejoin the ship, the tour operator said.

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