Africa's top peace and security official is appealing to Somalia's elders to use their influence to stop the piracy that threatens commercial traffic through the strategic Gulf of Aden. From African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports African and European officials have signed a deal to provide the AU with a military capability that would allow it to intervene in continental conflicts and crises.

AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra Friday called on the leaders of Somali society to persuade pirates operating off the coast of the Horn of Africa to stop hijacking ships for ransom. His appeal came as a Saudi vessel carrying $100 million in crude oil is anchored off the Somali coast in what is being called the world's biggest hijack.

Somali pirates aboard the vessel are said to be demanding a $25 million ransom for release of the ship and its international crew.

AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping has called the surge of Somali piracy an extension of the anarchy and political chaos gripping the country. Lamamra told VOA it is up to Somali political and clan leaders to put a stop to it.

"We call on all Somalis with influence on the pirates to help us curb this phenomenon," he said. "We believe that this is damaging to the Somali prospects for peace and cooperation and we think that all those who could have a positive influence under their solidarities that exist within Somali society should come in and tell these pirates that this is wrong. They have to stop it and stop it now."

Lamamra was speaking at a ceremony where African Union and European Union officials signed a $300 million agreement that will lead to establishment of a permanent African standby force. The five-brigade military force will be operational within 18 months, giving the African Union the ability to respond rapidly to continental hot spots.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner signed for Europe, since France holds the rotating EU presidency. He told reporters the force is designed as a deterrent. But when asked about the action by an Indian navy ship to sink a pirate vessel this week off the Somali coast, he suggested such actions are acceptable.

"The Indian vessel defended itself, which is quite normal and according to international law," he explained. "And yesterday a Saudi big tanker has been attacked, and the Saudi authorities, decided, so... So we want to act as deterrents, but you know they are heavily armed, heavily equipped with speedboats, etc., etc."

Kouchner said in the meantime, a European Union naval task force would join the U.S. Russian and Indian ships that have been dispatched to the Somali coast to keep shipping lanes open.

"So for the time being seven nations regrouped in a British harbor, the port of Northwood, are ready to work together," he added. "There is a strong effort between European Union defense and African defense, and locally, a large portion of the world, the navy ships would defend the cargo, the usual traffic for goods impossible to pass by without being threatened by attacks."

Kouchner says the European ships would reach the Gulf of Aden sometime in December.

A communiqué issued Friday after an EU/AU leadership meeting also urged the United Nations to play a role in bringing stability to Somalia. In unusually pointed language, the statement said the two continental groupings 'await with interest' the U.N. Security Council plan for establishment of a multi-national stabilization force that could reinforce the beleaguered 3,400-strong African Union peacekeeping force currently in Somalia.

The Security Council has been reluctant to send a peacekeeping force to Somalia, with some diplomats arguing there is no peace to keep.

Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991, when warlords toppled a military dictator. The current U.N.-backed transitional government, formed in 2004, has been unable to protect the population while battling a powerful Islamist insurgency.