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EU steps up fight against piracy

The EU launches offensive off the Somalian coast

The EU launched Operation Atlanta in December, a military offensive against pirates in the Gulf of Aden and off the shoreline of Somalia, the world's most notorious failed state. Piracy has been rife in these waters for years, with local brigands claiming that their activities – which have created a relatively booming economy in the havens of Bosaso and Eyl, two port towns in the semi-autonomous province of Puntland, on the Horn of Africa – is a response to illegal fishing and dumping in their territory.

But the attention of the great powers on the problem is recent, prompted by the seizure in November of a very large crude carrier, the Sirius Star, carrying 2m barrels of Saudi Arabian oil, and the capture in September of a boat laden with Ukrainian weapons destined for Kenya. Local reports say the ships could be released soon, although as Petroleum Economist went to press both remained anchored offshore Somalia as the pirates awaited settlement of ransoms of more than $15m apiece.

Now the EU has approved the deployment of six warships and three maritime patrol aeroplanes, supplied by the UK, France and Greece. Germany and Italy have also pledged gunboats to the operation. France has a military base at a port in Djibouti.

The EU also wants other countries to join the operation, which is the bloc's first maritime foray. "We are in talks with countries that want to contribute that have the potential to double the size of the force," UK Admiral Philip Jones, leading the operation, said last month. Japan, Norway and several Middle Eastern countries could sign up, while Indian and Russian naval ships also operating in the waters will co-ordinate with the EU's mission.

Among the operation's objectives will be the escorting of World Food Program vessels into Somalia, where starvation has threatened a humanitarian catastrophe following a weak rainy season earlier this year.

Some 20,000 ships pass through the Suez Canal each year, crossing the waters of the Gulf of Aden as they do so. By mid-December, pirates had already picked off over 100 vessels in the gulf last year. The International Maritime Bureau, which monitors world piracy, records a greater concentration of attacks there than anywhere else in the world, including the Malacca Straits, off Singapore, and Nigeria's Niger Delta. Pirates in Somalia are said to use rocket-propelled grenades as they launch speedboat attacks, with "motherships" supplying a base nearby.

The head of the EU's foreign policy, Javier Solana, said Operation Atlanta would use "robust rules of engagement". The UN has also passed a resolution allowing foreign navies to enter Somali waters to hunt down pirates.

The piracy has prompted worries that trade through the Suez Canal could be undermined and insurance premiums could rise on cargo, including crude oil, travelling through the Gulf of Aden. But it has also been a boon for private-sector security firms, which are considering manning commercial vessels and providing escorts for cargo ships.

Whether the latest operation solves the problem remains to be seen. Somali brigands have begun attacking vessels well outside of their waters – the Sirius Star was taken 400 miles off the Kenyan coastline – and have a policy of reinvesting ransoms in ever more sophisticated weaponry.

"The area is so large we could have hundreds of ships and still there would be gaps in our surveillance," admitted Jones last month. And he also acknowledged that the naval force would deal only with the symptom of a much larger problem, the chaos within Somalia itself. The EU forces have no mandate to act onshore.

And Somalia's troubles could grow worse. Last month, Ethiopia said it would withdraw its troops from the country, which has lacked an effective government since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, by the beginning of this year. With US backing, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to ouster the Islamic Courts Union in 2006 and has occupied the country ever since. Since then, a radical Islamic insurgency has waged civil war against the Ethiopians and the transitional federal government (TFG) in Mogadishu. Analysts say the TFG, which controls only small pockets of the south, could fall.

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