BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union agreed on Monday to launch an anti-piracy naval operation off the coast of Somalia involving warships and aircraft from several nations.
The mission, the first such naval operation ever mounted by the 27-member EU, will initially involve three warships — from Greece, Britain and France, and two maritime surveillance aircraft from France and Spain.
The naval force will be joined by a fourth ship from Germany upon approval of the mission by the German parliament, which is expected mid-month, EU officials said. Two maritime surveillance aircraft will be provided by France and Spain, they said.
A surge in piracy in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes off Somalia has pushed up insurance costs, brought pirate gangs tens of millions of dollars in ransoms and prompted foreign navies to rush to the area to protect merchant shipping.
There are already several international naval operations in the area, including a NATO mission to counter piracy, but they have done little to deter the pirates.
European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to the launch of the EU mission from Tuesday, foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a news conference.
“This is the first maritime crisis management operation after 20 EU crisis operations since 2003,” an EU official said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, adding that the mission would last up to a year.
He said the British and French ships were in the region while the Greek flagship would sail from Greece on Tuesday.
It is under the operational command of Britain and command of the naval force at sea will be held for an initial four months by Greece, then by Spain and then the Netherlands.
There have been around 95 pirate attacks in Somali waters this year, with some 40 ships taken, including a Saudi tanker holding $100 million of oil.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters the mission was significant.
“Piracy is a threat to European trade; also to global trade. The fact there are 19 hostage ships now in harbor is very clear proof of the need. The fact that the European Union is stepping up to the plate on this is a significant step forward,” he said.
The U.N. Security Council last week cleared the way for the EU mission when it renewed its authorization for countries to use military force against pirates off Somalia.
The U.S.-drafted resolution, adopted unanimously by the 15-nation council, extends for one year the right of countries with permission from Somalia’s transitional government to enter Somali waters to pursue and attack pirates.
French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said last week he was confident the EU operation would improve security in the Gulf of Aden, a major sea lane for Middle East oil used by ships heading to and from the Suez canal.
An unresolved issue has been jurisdiction over captured pirates and where they can be prosecuted. U.S. envoy Rosemary DiCarlo told reporters last week Washington hoped more countries would use a 1988 convention against unlawful acts committed at sea to put captured pirates on trial.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Mark John and Matthew Tostevin