The commander of EU naval forces patrolling off the Somalia coast says, despite continuing hijackings, including Wednesday's seizure of a Russian-owned oil tanker, the EU naval operation has been successful in meeting its mandate to deter and disrupt piracy in the region.
During a brief stopover at the Kenyan port of Mombasa, the Swedish commander of EU naval forces told reporters the combined maritime operations of the European Union, NATO, and allied forces in Somalia are using every means available to protect vessels and to disrupt pirate activities. Three naval groups are conducting anti-piracy patrols in the region - the European Union operation known as EU NAVFOR, NATO, and a naval force led by the U.S. Central Command in Bahrain.
Rear Admiral Jan Thornqvist says the ocean area of more than six-million square kilometers leaves plenty of room for pirates to prey on vessels. But he says there have been many successes for the naval forces as well.
For example, no ship carrying World Food Program food to ports in Somalia has been attacked since the European Union began escorting WFP ships in late 2007. Thornqvist says the nearly half a million metric tons of food delivered safely to Somalia has helped feed more than 1.6-million people. "I believe what we have done so far, and what we are up to for the future here, is a very very good result, even though we have a limited number of units, both on surface and in the air. We are making great progress," he stated.
The EU naval force is less than a dozen ships in an area equivalent to the size of the Mediterranean Sea. Its main tasks are to escort vessels carrying humanitarian aid for the World Food Program and supplys to the A.U. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, protect commercial vessels sailing in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and to detect, deter and disrupt piracy.
The combined naval forces are credited with disrupting more than 400 pirate operations, delivering nearly 270 pirates for prosecution to Kenya and other jurisdictions, destroying dozens of pirate vessels, and confiscating small boats and weapons.
But EU NAVFOR is not without critics. There have been allegations the naval force is safeguarding European fishing vessels illegally fishing in Somali waters. Local fishermen have complained EU forces regularly harass them, confiscating their boats and destroying nets and fishing equipment.
Admiral Thornqvist says such accusations are baseless. "We are very serious in collecting evidence of pirate activities. If they are dumping things, we can take very good photographs from helicopters. And we are also collecting evidence from captured boats, for example, to see if there has been planning activity for piracy. But there would be no action taken against friendly fishermen," he said.
It is believed piracy in Somalia began in the early 1990s, partly in response to foreign vessels fishing illegally in Somali waters. In the absence of any government to stop pirate activities, it quickly grew into a lucrative business. Since 2008, the international shipping industry is estimated to have paid more than $100-million in ransom for hijacked vessels and their crews.