Nato warships are in place off the Somali coast to tackle rampant piracy in the waters, and are ready to escort UN aid vessels under threat, a spokesman for the alliance's naval command said today. "The boats are in the area. They have started their deterrent role," a spokesman at Nato's naval command in Naples, Italy said by telephone, adding that the three vessels "would escort UN ships on request".
The ships - an Italian destroyer and British and Greek frigates which form Nato's operation Allied Provider - "may use force" under their rules of engagement and in line with international law, a statement said. They will help escort UN World Food Programme (WFP) food shipments, whose cargo is a tempting target for pirates, until the European Union can launch its own operation, probably in December.
The WFP ships 30,000-35,000 tonnes of aid into Somalia each month. Yesterday, a maritime watchdog said that Somali pirates were now responsible for nearly a third of all reported attacks on ships, often taking hostages and using high levels of violence. The International Maritime Bureau said 63 of the 199 piracy incidents recorded worldwide in the first nine months of this year occurred in the waters off war-ravaged Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden.
The figure is almost double that of the same period last year. Also yesterday, the French navy arrested nine suspected pirates and handed them over to authorities in the breakaway Somali region of Puntland. French marines in the Gulf of Aden arrested the men when their patrol intercepted two boats on Wednesday in international waters about 185km off the Somali coast. They found small arms and anti-tank weapons and equipment used to board ships on the vessels, said a statement from the French military in Paris.
Nato's top commander, the US General John Craddock, said the operation is proof of the military alliance's ability to rapidly react to crises around the globe. It "signifies Nato's continued relevance and willingness to 'step in' and 'step up' to threats of all descriptions - in this case the persistent threat of piracy," he said in a statement from his headquarters in Mons, Belgium. The pirates operate high-powered speedboats and are heavily armed, sometimes holding ships for weeks until they are released for large ransoms paid by governments or owners.