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NATO to Launch Anti-Piracy Operations Near Somalia

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, says it will send ships to Somalia to tackle pirates that have attacked scores of vessels this year. Stefan Bos reports from Budapest that the operation will include protecting ships carrying food aid from the United Nations.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters on Thursday that piracy in Somalia is a key topic at a two-day NATO summit in Budapest.

He said member states of the military alliance have agreed to send a seven-ship NATO force to waters off the troubled African nation within weeks, for operations that will include protecting United Nations vessels, delivering food aid.

"[NATO] nations agreed that NATO would make use of that presence, not necessarily all of the seven ships, but some of those ships, to do two things: One, to ensure that the World Food Program ships have the escort they need to deliver their essential food supplies," said James Appathurai. "And, more generally, to patrol the waters around Somalia to help stop acts of piracy."

He added that the decision, taken by NATO defense ministers in Budapest, came after a request from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a similar initiative agreed to by the European Union last week.

Spokesman Appathurai suggested that without urgent NATO and EU intervention, millions of Somalis could face starvation.

"Piracy is a serious problem for shipping in that area," he said. "It is also an immediate threat to the lives of the people in Somalia. Substantially more than 40 percent of the population depends on the food aid being delivered by ship by the World Food Program. And the World Food Program requires escorts for their transport ships, otherwise they are not able to deliver aid."

Pirates have attacked scores of vessels this year off the coast of Somalia, and officials say they have been reaping millions of dollars in ransoms, pushing up insurance rates for boats sailing near the lawless country.

Several ships are being held, including a Ukrainian vessel laden with tanks and other heavy weapons that were seized on September 25.

American warships have surrounded the cargo ship to prevent the pirates from unloading the weapons. The pirates have demanded $20 million in ransom.