US to head anti-pirate patrols off Somalia

Jan. 12, 2009
Forces still unable to attack pirate safe havens on shore

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates --

A new international force to battle pirates off the Somali coast is being formed under American command in a bid to focus more military resources to protect one of the world's key shipping lanes, the U.S. Navy said Thursday.

But the new mission, expected to begin operations next week, will have no wider authority to strike at pirate vessels at sea or move against havens on shore. That raises questions whether it can significantly curb pirate flotillas after more than 110 ships were attacked last year.

International efforts to fight piracy have mounted in recent months. More than 20 nations are expected to take part in the new U.S.-led mission.

"This task force does not does have any greater rules of engagement," said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain. "It does, however, bring a greater focus to counter-piracy operations under one command."

That could lead to more targeted strategies to foil the pirates at sea and gain information on their operations, Campbell told The Associated Press.

There are more than a dozen warships guarding Somalia's waters. Countries including the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and India have naval forces off the Somali coast or on their way there. The U.S. military announcement did not mention the nations taking part in the counter-piracy force, but Campbell said it would likely include nations with ships already in the region.

The announcement said the new force will be headed by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight.

The 2008 spike in pirate attacks on commercial vessels in August prompted U.S. Naval Central Command to establish a security corridor within the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean near Somalia.

A more robust military presence in the pirate-infested area off the coast of Yemen and Somalia has helped deter some attacks, but it has not stopped hijackings of commercial vessels.

More than a dozen ships with around 200 crew members remain in the hands of pirates, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.