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On an EU pirate-hunting mission, vigilance is key

As part of the EU NAVFOR mission, the Spanish warship Infanta Christina is patrolling the shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia. The patrol ship and its crew are also there to protect UN food-aid shipments.

Montage of a container ship that has been taken by pirates, shown through an observer's cross-hairs

The EU project has been successful in targeting pirates, operators say

She floats quietly in the shade of the setting son in the Mombasa harbor: the Infanta Christina, a Spanish warship heavily armed with rockets and anti-aircraft weapons. As part of the EU NAVFOR's Operation Atalanta, the ship is controlling the sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden off of the coast of Somalia.

Suddenly, the ship's deck is busy and hectic. Speedboats are dropped into the water. The alarm goes up: Pirates! Marine infantry in bulletproof vests climb down the railing, armed with machine guns. Loaded up with seven men, each boat speeds off from the main ship. From the command bridge, crew members are keeping the suspected pirate ship under close surveillance with modern positioning systems.

Dozens of inspections

speedboat carrying marines and other military personnel

Speedboats rush off to inspect suspicious craft

Navigation Officer Alberto Arcos says night-vision goggles are key instruments for hunting pirates. "It is one of our best tools. We can see keep an eye on small boats, even from about six nautical miles away - that's 11 kilometers (6.8 miles)."

Other warships, moving around in the area, appear on the computer screen. With the help of a digital chat room, the crew of the Infanta Christina can be in contact with Russian or Japanese ships, and trade important information.

In this case, the alarm was just an exercise. But in reality, the 103-member crew of the Infanta Christina sometimes inspects up to a dozen suspicious boats.

'We see them throwing things overboard'

It is mostly small boats, Arabian dhows, or rowboats with outboard motors, that are suspected of being pirate ships.

"When our speedboats come up closer to the small boats, we sometimes see them throwing things overboard: ladders or bazookas. Then its pretty clear that it isn't a fishing boat," said Per Klingvall, spokesman for EU-NAVFOR. The EU's one-and-a-half year old anti-pirate mission has been worthwhile for its preventive success alone, Klingvall said. The European warships have safely guided numerous UN World Food Programme food-transport vessels through the Gulf of Aden.

Picture of the Infanta Christina's canons

The EU ships are fitted with guns and canons

"Since the beginning of our mission in December 2008, not a single ship with cargo from the UN World Food Programme has been seized," Klingvoll said. Through September 2010, the 10 Mission Atalanta ships have arrested 68 suspected pirates, and handed them over to the authorities. The number of ships seized by pirates fell about 30 percent in the first nine months of the year compared with a year earlier, and the number of prevented acts of piracy rose five-fold. The EU NAVFOR ships have escorted more than 75 ships safely through the Gulf of Aden.

Making the seas safe for food delivery

Moreover, more than 400,000 tons of food aid has been delivered to Somalia. The mission cost just over 8 million euros ($11 million) in the first year. The running costs of the 20 ships and planes involved are carried by the individual EU states that operate them.

Of course, monitoring all of the coastal waters is impossible, but EU NAVFOR spokesman Klingvall believes the endeavor has been well worthwhile: "We have clearly made the seas here safer. There are still piracy attacks, but our military presence has limited them." The mission has been extended until 2012.

Critics of Operation Atalanta complain that the pirates have merely moved their field of activity further out into the Indian Ocean. But one incontestable fact is that, in the wake of an accord with Kenya, Somali pirates have been successfully tried in court. As part of an agreement with the EU, which provided legal and tactical advice, Kenyan authorities have brought 120 pirates to trial.

Kenya's agreements on piracy trials

As part of the 16-month-old agreement, Kenya also received financial assistance to build new jails and courts. The country has similar accords with the UK, the US, China, Denmark and Canada.

sign indicating kenyan police criminal investigations department

Until this month, Kenya was responsible for trying pirates

Andrew Cole, coordinator of the UN's anti-piracy program, praised the results of the agreement with the EU so far, saying the trials "were very thorough and no slower than a similar procedure in Europe would have been. Kenya showed that it is capable of putting on a fair and competent legal proceeding and every defendant had access to a lawyer."

Yet at the end of September, Kenya allowed the EU agreement to run out without renewing it. Kenya has complained that it needs more funding to deal with the problem of repatriation once the pirates had served their jail terms. But European countries and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime say they don't want to feel pressured to put up more funding. They say they will look for new partner countries that can bring Somali pirates to trial, and they note that the Seychelles would be one option.

In Kenya, a spokeswoman for the country's Foreign Affairs Ministry told reporters for the US news network CNN that the possibility is still open that the deal can be renewed.

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz (jen)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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