NATO ministers back long-term anti-piracy mission


NATO defence ministers are backing a plan for a long-term NATO anti-piracy mission off Somalia after the current operation ends later this month.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said a British-commanded task force involving six NATO nations would take over the mission from July 1.

“NATO will continue to play its role in the fight against piracy,” he told a news conference today after a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels. Other nations had indicated they could join the new mission in future, de Hoop Scheffer added.

NATO officials said the ministers endorsed a plan for a year-long anti-piracy mission, Reuters reports.

Somali gangs have made millions of dollars seizing vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, driving up insurance rates and other costs in key sea lanes linking Europe to Asia.

The attacks have continued despite the presence of naval forces from more than a dozen states, including others forces under EU and U.S. command.

Latest arrests

Meanwhile, Reuters reports the US Navy handed over 17 suspected Somali pirates to Kenya on Wednesday, taking the number of such captives in prisons along the east African country’s coast to 111.

Kenyan police say the influx of suspected Somali pirates is clogging jails and congesting local courts and they would like foreign navies patrolling the shipping lanes off Somalia to start taking captives to other countries.

“We are looking at ways in the near future to have the pirates either charged in Seychelles, Egypt or Djibouti due to congestion,” Sebson Wandera, the provincial CID operations chief, told reporters in the port city of Mombasa.

He said the latest arrivals would be taken to a court in Malindi, further up the coast from Mombasa towards Somalia, and if suspected pirates continued to flood into Kenya they may have to be taken to the capital Nairobi.

International navies trying to curb piracy off lawless Somalia are often reluctant to bring suspects to their own countries because they either lack the jurisdiction, or fear the pirates may seek asylum.

The European Union, United States and some other countries have instead struck agreements with Kenya to leave suspects to face trial in east Africa‘s biggest economy.

Some pirates are being prosecuted in France and the Netherlands.

In Kenya, 10 pirates are serving a seven-year jail term at a prison in Voi, near Mombasa.

Kenya has made clear it cannot take all the pirates and local Muslim leaders are worried the growing number of Somali prisoners could fuel tensions between the neighbouring nations.

Kenya is not a dumping ground. The US or the French or the German navy should take charge of the people they arrest,” said Sheikh Mohammed Khalifa, organising secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK).

“It is almost like they want to open an African Guantanamo Bay in Kenya. It is a very dangerous trend,” he said.

The hardline Islamist insurgent group al Shabaab, which controls southern Somalia along Kenya‘s border, has links to al Qaeda and there are fears of strikes in the capital Nairobi.

Kenya‘s Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula reassured diplomats on Wednesday of their security against any terrorist attacks, saying the diplomatic police had been put on “high alert”.

“The minister added that we are living in a volatile world and the deteriorating situation in Somalia has compounded the security situation,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

“He called upon the international community to address the issue of Somalia since it has assumed global ramifications,” the ministry said in a statement.

There was a bomb scare at the Norwegian embassy last week and Delta Air Lines cancelled its maiden flight to Nairobi after the US government said there was a “credible threat” to civil aviation in east Africa.

An al Qaeda truck bomb killed more than 200 people at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in August 1998.

Suicide bombers struck again in 2002, killing 15 people at an Israeli-owned hotel on the Kenyan coast. At almost the same time, attackers tried to shoot down an Israeli jetliner as it left Mombasa. Both missiles missed.

Piracy in Omani waters

In another development, Reuters reports suspected Somali pirates have seized a German-owned cargo ship off the coast of the Gulf Arab state of Oman, the first recorded attack in its territorial waters.

The MV Charelle was attacked 60 nautical miles south off Sur on the Omani coast, NATO Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Fernandes said aboard NATO’s Portuguese warship Corte-Real, which is on anti-piracy patrol off Somalia.

“The Charelle is now heading southwest towards Somalia,” Fernandes said. “This is the first case of armed robbery outside the normal operations area of the pirates.”

“They are probably looking for other areas of operations where there are less patrols by warships.”

No distress call was heard from the vessel, but the ship was reported hijacked on Friday afternoon, he said. It is not known how many crew are on board or what their nationalities are.

Fernandes said the Antigua and Barbuda-flagged vessel would soon cross into international waters where many warships are patrolling. But he said they were unlikely to do anything to upset the pirates or endanger their prisoners.

Lloyds reports the vessel is owned by shipping firm Tarmstedt International.

The International Maritime Bureau says more ships have been attacked off Somalia so far in 2009 than in the whole of 2008. There have been 132 reported attacks compared with 111 in 2008.

But fewer of those attacks have been successful. There have been 29 successful hijackings compared with 42 last year.