EU gives free rein to anti-pirate warships
Pirates off the coast of Somalia will now have to contend with an EU naval force mandated on Friday (23 March) by EU member states to launch attacks on its inner coastal territory.
Two additional French warships joined the EU naval force, dubbed Operation Atalanta Forces, off the Somali coast on Friday. One of the French frigates is a mobile operating base able to carry 16 helicopters.
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A spokesperson at the European Union Naval Force (EU Navfor) Somalia declined to comment if the French warship is actually carrying any helicopters or what their targets would be if they did.
"No decision has been made and what kind of operations will take place," he told EUobserver from the United Kingdom. "But no boots will be on the ground."
For his part, German deputy defence minister Christian Schmidt told press in Brussels on Thursday that helicopters would be used to strike against moored pirate boats, trucks or fuel depots. "This should be limited actions against assets on the edge of the beach," he noted.
Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, who is the operational commander of the EU naval force, also warned that "piracy has caused so much misery to the Somali people and to the crews of ships transiting the area and it is right that we continue to move forward in our efforts."
At the same time as widening the scope of operations, the EU also extended the anti-pirate mission's overall mandate on Friday by two years.
Including the two French warships, Operation Atalanta Forces now has a total of six EU surface combat vessels patrolling a zone 30 times the surface-area of England.
Aside from the Somali coastal territory and its territorial and internal waters, the ships also cover the south of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Western part of the Indian Ocean including the Seychelles.
The EU mission is not alone ,however.
Nato and other countries, including India, China, Iran and South Korea are also on the scene. Monitoring and patrolling the area can be tricky as seasonal factors affect the number of locations where pirates launch their attacks.
"During the inter-monsoon period quite every location along the coast may be used to launch skiffs and whalers, including southern coast locations," the EU Navfor spokesperson told EUobserver.
Most pirates operate mainly around Xarardheere, Hobyo and Bandarbeyla towns along an eastern stretch of the country, though some activities have also been spotted in the northern territory. Pirated vessels are typically anchored around these three towns.
EU Navfor's more pro-active military stance is a departure from its initial duties in 2008, which were to protect vessels of the World Food Programme delivering food aid to displaced persons in Somalia.
Despite a 68 percent drop in the number of piracy attacks since last September, the EU maintains that piracy remains a serious threat. Alone, Somali piracy reportedly costs the global economy some €5.3 billion a year.
The EU wants to work with the country's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and other Somali entities to stem piracy. But just about the entire country, except for its capital Mogadishu, is controlled by Al Shabaab militants who recently announced an alliance with Al Qaeda.
Last year, pirates boarded around 30 ships and held some 700 hostages. Over 200 hostages are still being held. Some, such as one South African couple, have been detained for over a year and half.
Some experts believe the renewed EU naval force mandate will only drive pirates to use different tactics.
"We don't think it's going to help that much," Ernst Jan Hoogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, told EUobserver from Nairobi.
"Pirates will adapt to the new constraints imposed upon them by Operation Atalanta Forces," he added, explaining that they will simply move the fuelling stations and other targeted assets further inland and into civilian-heavy areas.