Op Atalanta has ensured safe passage for WFP vessels for eight years


December marked the end of the eighth year of EU naval operations off the coast of Somalia with the primary task of protecting World Food Programme (WFP) vessels from pirate attacks successful with not a single attack recorded.

Operation Atalanta started in 2008 as the EU’s first ever military maritime operation in response to a surge in armed pirate attacks on merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa.

The attacks, EUNavFor said at the time, were causing misery for seafarers and impacting significantly on international shipping with lost trade and higher insurance premiums costing the maritime industry billions. There were also growing concerns in the UN about the safety of WFP vessels delivering much-needed humanitarian aid, including food and medical supplies, to displaced people in Somalia.

This saw, once UN Security Council resolutions were in place, EU member states launching Operation Atalanta in December 2008.

Since its launch, Operation Atalanta warships and maritime patrol aircraft have ensured 100% of WFP vessels sailing under EUNavFor’s protection have remained safe from pirate attack. EUNavFor has also prevented and disrupted a significant number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. This has seen 154 men suspected of committing acts of piracy transferred to the EU or regional states for legal prosecution.

Also during counter-piracy patrols to deter, disrupt and repress pirates, information gathered on vessels fishing in Somali waters has been forwarded to the EU’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in Brussels, as part of international efforts to combat illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia.

Starting in July 2012 Operation Atalanta sailors and marines also assisted EU colleagues and EU sister mission, EUCAP Somalia, in co-operation with regional authorities to train Somali and local maritime forces to strengthen security and development in the Horn of Africa region. In 2016 EU NavFor hosted members of the Somali Government during the Europe Day celebrations in Mogadishu in May and trained maritime forces from Bosaso and Berbera.

A notable success over the past eight years, according to an EU NavFor statement, has been the close co-operation and co-ordination that has developed between the different counter-piracy task forces, independent navies and maritime industry.
“By working together and implementing protection measures, pirate attacks have significantly reduced. It is sobering to think that between 2005 and 2012 a total of 385 million US dollars was paid out in ransoms and at the height of Somali-based piracy in January 2011, over 700 hostages and 32 vessels were being held in pirate anchorages. As of December, none of these ships and their hostages were held.”

Recognising that while pirate attacks and incidents of piracy have largely been suppressed, EU member states are aware conditions that originally enabled piracy to flourish remain in place “so there is no room for complacency”.

This attitude has seen Operation Atalanta’s counter-piracy mandated extended until December 31, 2018.

In addition to making use of maritime aircraft and various naval platforms to ensure safety from piracy, Operation Atalanta has and is making use of embarked marines aboard WFP vessels as a further preventive measure.

A maritime security team from Croatia is the latest to fill this task having been aboard the MSM Douro since November. The Croatians and marines from other EU member states maintain a 24/7 watch while aboard and are a further security layer.

While South Africa is not part of the Atalanta task force, an SA Navy vessel has been part of one of the Atalanta sorties. The supply and replenishment vessel, SAS Drakensberg, filled the stopper role in the Mozambique Channel while Atalanta resources hunted down suspected pirate ships following an unsuccessful attack on a Filipino merchant vessel in April 2012.

South African naval resources are deployed on a regular basis in the Mozambique Channel as part of a tri-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) counter-piracy tasking, Operation Copper. South Africa is the senior partner contributing both naval and airborne assets while Mozambique and Tanzania provide manpower, port and aviation facilities.