Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Navy may escort Somalia WFP ships

Navy may escort Somalia WFP ships

China may expand its anti-piracy mission in waters off Somalia by assisting the EU fleet in escorting World Food Programme (WFP) ships en route to the Horn of Africa, the deputy commander of the EU naval operation there said on Tuesday.

China already has a naval presence in the region after it deployed two destroyers and a supply ship to escort ships through the Gulf of Aden almost two years ago.

If the mission is given the green light, the Chinese warships will be deployed in the Somali Basin to help the EU naval force in its anti-piracy efforts, codenamed Operation Atalanta.

"We are always in close contact and communication with the Chinese forces," Rear Admiral Thomas Ernst, deputy operation commander of the EU Naval Force Somalia (NAVFOR), said. A process is under way of establishing a China escort plan for the WFP, he added.

Ernst praised the plan as "the biggest help" NAVFOR can get from Chinese forces, during an interview with China Daily at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Chinese naval officers will soon be on board one of the EU vessels which escorts WFP ships, to see how the process works, he said.

Some Chinese officers could be introduced to procedures in December and Chinese warships could start the mission "hopefully by the beginning of next year", he said. "China has declared its intention to then start taking over WFP ships."

The Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday the Chinese Navy will continue to escort Chinese and international vessels traveling in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, including WFP ships.

The ministry said China is willing to cooperate with other nations and organizations in escorting vessels in the region under the framework of the United Nations, to safeguard peace and stability.

Operation Atalanta was launched in December 2008 and has been extended by the European Council until December 2012. Up to 12 EU warships operate at any one time.

Protecting WFP ships is the operation's top mandate.

Under Operation Atalanta, the WFP had delivered more than 480,000 tons of food into Somalia through Mogadishu, Merka, Bossaso and Berbera as of Nov 18.

But pirates still threaten trade routes in the Indian Ocean and have widened their scope of attacks.

In recent weeks, pirates have struck as far south as Tanzania and Madagascar, with the easternmost attack yet on Sunday, just off the Indian coast.

China's possible involvement in escorting WFP ships will free EU assets for other tasks, Ernst added.

But the move raises the question of whether the Chinese naval presence there, two destroyers and a supply ship, will be adequate for two missions - escorting WFP ships along the Somali coast and others through the Gulf of Aden - simultaneously.

Gary Li, who analyses Chinese military affairs at the IISS, said that should not be a concern. China's involvement in the Somali Basin will enhance its coordination with the EU fleet, and will generally improve the efficiency of the international community's anti-piracy mission, he said.

It's also a chance for the Chinese Navy to learn from traditional naval powers, Li said.

"The Chinese Navy's involvement will also show that China is a major responsible power willing to cooperate multilaterally," he said. "The international response will be very positive."

"The two navies can share information, and perform more tasks on more routes," said Li Jie, a researcher with the Chinese Navy's military academy.

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