NEWS

Anti-piracy mission to grow

BRUSSELS (AFP) – EU nations on Tuesday agreed to greatly extend their anti-piracy naval operations against Somali pirates as far as the Seychelles, European diplomats said. «Representatives of the 27 [EU nations] on the Political and Security Committee reached agreement on the extension of the Atalanta intervention zone as far as the Seychelles,» one diplomat told AFP. Naval ships from the European Union’s Atalanta operation, along with NATO and other US-led coalitions, have thwarted several pirate attacks in recent days, either preventing hijackings or capturing suspected pirates. Some 20 foreign warships patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia – on one of the globe’s busiest maritime trade routes – on any given day. With foreign navies focusing their efforts on the Gulf of Aden, a key convergence point for maritime traffic and a large proportion of the world’s oil supplies, ransom-hungry pirates have hunted their prey some 700 nautical miles into the Indian Ocean from southern Somalia eastward to the Seychelles archipelago. «The Atalanta patrol zone will be made a quarter bigger,» the diplomat said. «The operational plan has been modified to encompass the Seychelles archipelago,» which has been out of bounds up to now, another diplomat said. There was unanimity «to extend the coverage up to the Seychelles, to reinforce the capacity of the air and naval patrols, which have already had good results, and prolong the duration of its operations,» beyond the current December mandate, Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon said after that meeting. At present, the EU flotilla is made up of German, Swedish, Spanish, French, Greek and Italian navy ships. Other EU nations, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Romania and nonmembers Norway and Switzerland, are expected to contribute to the expanded Atalanta operation. As to its prolongation beyond the current mid-December mandate, Swedish Defense Minister Sten Tolgfors, whose country will assume the rotating EU presidency in July, voiced support. «I remain very open to that, should the mandate be prolonged,» he said. «We have to wait for the midterm report in June,» he said, while adding, «Few believe that the problem will have disappeared by then.» According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks off lawless Somalia increased tenfold in the first three months of the year, compared with the same period in 2008, jumping from six to 61. The Atalanta operation has already delivered about 100 Somali pirates to Kenya, a European diplomat said.