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More Naval Vessels Heading for Somali Coast to Ward Off Pirates

A flotilla of NATO warships is expected soon off the Somali coast to protect ships from pirates. Some of those ships are loaded with emergency food aid for Somalia. Russia is now asking the Somali Transitional Federal Government for permission to send one of its ships to the area as well.

In related news, officials in Somalia's Puntland region say the French Navy has captured nine suspected pirates and handed them over to Puntland authorities. They say the French intercepted two small boats off the Somali coast on Wednesday. Media reports say there were weapons found aboard the vessels.

Humanitarian agencies say they hope the naval escort duty will ensure a free flow of food aid into Somalia and ease the humanitarian crisis. Peter Smerdon is a spokesman for the UN World Food Program in Nairobi. He spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the naval escorts.

"Generally, we're only concerned with protecting assistance going into Somalia from piracy. So, when these various forces offer to escort humanitarian assistance into Somalia we're very pleased. So, today (Thursday), the Netherlands is taking over escorting World Food Program ships into Somali waters from the Canadians, who've been doing this since August as part of a naval operation since November last year…. And we are told that NATO and the European Union may well provide frigates for similar purpose once the Netherlands's finishes up in December," he says.

With the current escort duty, the WFP has been able to get food into the country and distributed. Smerdon says, "Basically, they escort the food into either Mogadishu or Merka. Merka's a beach port about a hundred kilometers south of Mogadishu. We then put it in warehouses and it goes out for monthly food distribution. But because we need to get so much food into Somalia at the moment, because we need to feed two-point-four million a month, generally it doesn't sit in the warehouse for long."

A lot of food is needed before the end of the year. "We have to move 150,000 tons of food, enough to feed one-point-five million people for six months, into Somalia in the final three months of this year. And that's why escorts are so vital, because 90 percent of WFP food for Somalia has to come by sea," he says.

Smerdon says that while the WFP faces serious insecurity in Somalia, the agency has "over the last year or so built a fairly robust security mechanism. So, we are still able to shift large amounts of food assistance and get it to the people in need."

The WFP spokesman says the agency needs a constant flow of food ships to the country, but warns the agency is short of contributions. "We are always short. We need more assistance from donors, but we are trying to get as many ships in as possible to reach that two-point-four million mark."

Asked whether the WFP is concerned the global financial crisis will affect donations, Smerdon says, "Well, it's (in the) early days yet. But we would hope there is no reduction of donations because definitely this food is saving lives around the world. The world has shown that there's more than a trillion (US) dollars on the table to deal with the global financial crisis. So we would hope the international community would step forward and see that the two billion dollars that we need to complete our work in 2008 across the world is relatively a small amount and therefore will come forward with it despite the pressure of the global financial crisis."

For the last several weeks, US navy ships have surrounded a cargo vessel that was hijacked by pirates. The ship is believed carrying tanks and other weapons.