China dispatches ships to battle Somali pirates

Dec. 19, 2008
Nation joins international effort battling piracy in Gulf of Aden

BEIJING -- China said Thursday that it plans to dispatch warships to join an international effort battling rampant piracy off the coast of Somalia - the Chinese navy's first major mission outside the Pacific.

The announcement came a day after a Chinese cargo ship's crew - aided by an international anti-piracy force - fought off an attempted hijacking in the Gulf of Aden using Molotov cocktails and water hoses.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Beijing welcomed stronger international cooperation in countering piracy, which has become a major problem in the waters off the Somali coast.

"We are making preparations and arrangements to deploy naval ships to the Gulf of Aden for escorting operations," Liu said without elaborating on details of the mission.

The Global Times, a newspaper published by the Communist Party, said the fleet could consist of two cruisers and one large supply ship.

For the Chinese navy, which has mainly concentrated on the country's coastal defense, it would mark the first time it has been involved in multilateral operations in modern times, said Christian LeMiere, a senior analyst for Jane's Country Risk, a security intelligence group.

Participating in the patrols allows China to use its naval power in a way that is not threatening to other countries, he said. At the same time, the military muscle "shows China is willing and able to protect its economic interests overseas."

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said the U.S. welcomed China's move. "We look forward to working with the Chinese both bilaterally and multilaterally on this challenge to international security," he said.

China's warships would join ships from the U.S., Denmark, Italy, Russia and other countries in patrolling the Gulf of Aden, which is one of the world's busiest waterways and has become infested with heavily armed Somali pirates.

Spurred by widespread poverty in their homeland, the pirates have hijacked more than 40 vessels off their country's coastline this year - many in the gulf. Many of the vessels are taken to pirate-controlled regions in Somalia, where they are held for ransom.

China's participation comes after an unanimous U.N. Security Council vote this week to authorize nations to conduct land and air attacks on the increasingly audacious pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Yet another bold attack came early Wednesday when nine pirates armed with rocket launchers and machine guns overtook the Chinese-owned Zhenhua 4 ship, its captain Peng Weiyuan was quoted as saying during an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television.

"They climbed to our ship and tried to get to the area where the crew members were staying.... We had 30 crew members and we were fully prepared and well trained," he said. "We took away the ladders which used to lead to the platform to stop the pirates and we used Molotov cocktails and a high-pressure water pipe to stop them."

After retreating to their cabins and locking the doors, the pirates tried but failed to shoot them open, Peng said.

A distress call to the International Maritime Bureau brought two attack helicopters and a warship from the Malaysian navy about 90 minutes later, and the bandits quickly abandoned ship, leaving the crew unharmed, he said.

But the attack highlighted the ongoing risks for ships in the important trade route of the Gulf of Aden, which lies between Somalia and Yemen and is on the route to the Suez Canal, the quickest route from Asia to Europe and the Americas.

Liu, the government spokesman, said 300 ships were attacked by pirates last year in that area, citing data from the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program. More than 40 ships were hijacked in the first 11 months of this year.

"Piracy has become an international enemy, posing great threat to international navigation, trade and security," Liu said.

From January to November, 1,265 Chinese ships have passed through the area - an average of three to four vessels a day, he said. About 20 percent of them have come under attack, Liu said.

This year, there have been seven cases of pirate hijackings involving Chinese ships or crews, he said, including Wednesday's attack.

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