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31st Oct 2020

Europe to tackle Somali pirates but not Congo rebels

EU defence ministers on Monday launched the bloc's first naval security operation to fight pirates off the coast of Somalia starting December this year. But German and British opposition scuppered French calls to send EU troops to another African conflict zone - eastern Congo.

Though "a bit hesitant" in the beginning, Great Britain will lead the anti-piracy operation, dubbed "Atalanta," with a British vice-admiral in charge and the headquarters established in Northwood, near London, French defence minister Herve Morin said on Monday (10 November) after chairing the EU meeting.

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"Britain is a great maritime power. It is a nice symbol that this operation be commanded by a British officer and from a British headquarters. It is a good symbol of the evolution in European defence, and I would say, of its coming of age," he said.

"Our participation in the Somalia project is an important one," said David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary. "This is obviously a very challenging project but one that European leaders are approaching with real humility as well as determination."

The Franco-British rapprochement was hailed as a "first" by Le Figaro, which notes that since the launch of the EU's common security and defence policy (ESDP) in 1998, London has often seemed "reluctant to fully participate in European military missions," as it always defended the primacy of NATO.

Other countries such as Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain, possibly also Portugal, Sweden and Norway are to contribute to the task-force, which will comprise at least seven ships, three of which frigates and one supply vessel, while also being backed by surveillance aircraft.

Some MEPs, like UK conservative Geoffrey van Orden, have challenged the rationale of this mission, with NATO ships are also providing escort and assistance to UN food aid deliveries. Others, like Portuguese socialist Ana Gomes, have stressed that no such mission can be effective without tackling the root cause of piracy - state failure and lawlessness in Somalia.

The EU initiative was taken after Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed urged Somalis and the international community to combat rising piracy off the lawless nation's waters.

The International Maritime Bureau said 63 of the 199 piracy incidents recorded orldwide in the first nine months of this year occurred in the waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. The heavily armed pirates prey on a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which some 30 percent of the world's oil is transported.

Under the mission's rules of engagement, EU nations that capture any pirates will not be allowed to hand them over to a state where suspects could face the death penalty, torture or degrading treatment.

No troops to Congo

France failed to get the support from the 26 other member states for sending a 1,500-strong EU battlegroup to support the 17,000 UN troops in their efforts to stem the violence in eastern Congo, however.

According to the International Herald Tribune, opposition from Germany and Great Britain blocked this French initiative.

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said there was an urgent need for 3,000 more soldiers to reinforce the 17,000 UN troops in Congo. "The humanitarian situation is extremely disastrous and its intolerable," he said.

British foreign secretary David Miliband said the European Union should encourage the African Union to do more militarily while promoting a political solution.

"We hear excuse after excuse from European countries about why they can't help and they pass the buck to another country, another continent," Juliette Prodhan from Oxfam International said in a statement. "Their inaction has very human consequences ...How many more must suffer before Europe will take effective action?"

Pan-European aircraft fleet

After experiencing difficulties in supporting the humanitarian and peacekeeping missions such as the one in Chad, EU ministers agreed on Monday to build a pan-European military aircraft transport fleet, to be operational in the next decade.

"Pooling European aircraft and services will improve the lift capabilities and alleviate a significant European shortfall," Alexander Weis, chief executive of the European Defence Agency told defence ministers on Monday, explaining that the initiative would pool both European and US aircraft and transporters.

Depending on their capabilities, the countries will make aircraft available for use, purchase or exchange flying hours and pool resources for training and maintenance.

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