- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2008

MOMBASA, Kenya | The European Union will launch its first naval combat mission Sunday, deploying a British frigate to escort vital U.N. food aid to starving Somalis.

The warship will accompany the small cargo vessel Semlow from Mombasa, Kenya, to the Somali capital Mogadishu, through waters teeming with pirates.

The deployment, code-named Operation Atalanta, marks growing world commitment to combating piracy, and to the 16-year-old Somali aid effort.

The British frigate will be part of six warships and three maritime reconnaissance aircraft that will replace a NATO naval force that has been patrolling the region and escorting cargo ships carrying relief aid to Somalia since the end of October, the Associated Press reported.

Officials said France, Greece, Germany and Britain will provide ships for the initial naval contingent, and France and Italy will provide patrol aircraft.

Besides the NATO ships, 10 other warships from the United States, Russia, Malaysia and India are patrolling the region.

The Indian navy on Saturday captured 23 pirates who threatened a merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden.

The INS Mysore was escorting merchant ships when it received a distress call from seamen on board the MV Gibe, who said they were being attacked by two boats.

The message said the pirates were firing as their boats closed in on the Gibe, according to a statement from the Indian government. The pirate boats attempted to escape when they saw the Mysore and its helicopter, but were boarded by Indian marine commandos, the statement said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told a regional security forum in Bahrain on Saturday that the commercial shipping industry could do more to protect itself from piracy off the Somali and Kenyan coasts.

“Companies and ships must be more vigilant about staying within approved traffic corridors,” he said.

Commercial ships should also “speed up” and try to outrun pirates and “pull up the ladders,” so pirates cannot board. “This is not rocket science,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Gates said that the United States does not have enough intelligence to pinpoint and attack the “two or three families or clans in Somalia that account for most of this activity.”

Somalia hasn’t had a functioning central government since a brutal civil war beginning in 1991. In 2006, Ethiopia invaded the East African country in a bid to tamp down swelling religious extremism, but the invasion sparked a nationalist insurgency that claimed the lives of around 7,000 Somalis in 2007.

Due to the decay of national infrastructure and disruptions to agriculture, some 4 million Somalis — half the population — depend on food donations. The bulk of the food comes by sea, in order to avoid bandit-infested roads.

But in the 1990s, seaborne bandits, many of them unemployed Somali fishermen, began attacking and hijacking food ships. The cargo vessel Semlow was hijacked on a food run in June 2005. Its 10-member crew spent 110 days in captivity before a ransom was paid, and they were released unharmed.

Somali pirates have grown bolder this year, attacking commercial and cruise ships hundreds of miles from the coast. There have been more than 100 major pirate attacks off the Somali coast this year. Pirates have seized scores of vessels. Around 200 seafarers, many of them Kenyans, remain in captivity.

The U.N. has responded to attacks on the food ships by soliciting military assistance. The world’s navies take turns escorting U.N.-contracted vessels into Mogadishu or the nearby port of Merka. Semlow’s captain, Edward Kalendera, 51, said the two-day journey from Mombasa to Mogadishu is the most dangerous in the world.

“We know going there [means] risking life,” Mr. Kalendera said Thursday while supervising the loading of food into the ship’s hold. “But I have to do the job to get money for [my family]. I have to go to Somalia.”

The British frigate assigned to protect Semlow, the HMS Northumberland, is armed with missiles, guns and a Merlin helicopter. It is flying the flag of the European Union, which in recent years has sponsored its first military exercises and deployments, drawing upon the forces of member nations. This spring the EU deployed its first land combat force to Chad to protect Darfur refugee camps.

For the last few miles of the trip to Mogadishu, the convoy will run silent, extinguishing all lights and suppressing noise. Once inside Mogadishu’s small port, Semlow will be protected by troops from the small African Union peacekeeping contingent based in the embattled city.

In Mombasa’s business community, which is heavily invested in maritime trade, there is broad support for the EU deployment. But some Mombasa shipping directors want to see anti-piracy efforts expand deeper into the Gulf of Aden, which serves as a gateway between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is heavily trafficked by ships carrying goods between Europe and Asia.

With attacks increasing in range and frequency, some shipping lines have canceled the Gulf of Aden route, instead sending vessels the long way around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The added distance means higher costs for shippers and, ultimately, consumers.

Some 30 warships from about a dozen navies have converged on the Gulf of Aden in order to deter piracy, but even this is inadequate, according to Karim Kudrati, Semlow’s owner. “We need more international community protection to see that the routes are safeguarded,” he said.

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