Launched in 2008 to prevent and repress the increasing acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast and in the Indian Ocean, the European Union’s Naval Force Somalia – Operation Atalanta has so far arrested and transferred for prosecution 117 suspected pirates and in 2011 disrupted 27 pirate action groups.

As piracy in the Western Indian Ocean has been a threat to security and international shipping, EU NAVFOR – Operation Atalanta has been able to provide protection to vessels of the World Food Programme (WFP) delivering food aid to displaced persons in Somalia and has escorted 155 WFP ships carrying about 900 metric tons of food to Somalia. The task force has also safely escorted 126 ships of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

‘India a key player’

Besides participation by EU member-States, EU NAVFOR Atalanta also draws strength from additional international military maritime presence in the area, comprising the Combined Maritime Force (CMF), NATO and independent national units such as China, India, Japan and Russia – all committed to counter piracy.

“We have permanent liaison with these forces and India remains a key player in it. We want to put extra cost to the pirates who continue to operate with a sense of impunity. We are also mandated to search, attack and seize the vessels of pirates. We have put in place a regional anti-piracy intelligence centre at Seychelles. While deterring acts of piracy in the region, we continue to follow `no- boots on the ground’ policy as well,’’ said Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, Operation Commander of EU Naval Force while talking to a group of visiting Indian journalists to Operation Atalanta’s headquarters here last week.

He said that 227 hostages were still being held by Somali pirates and the highest ransom paid so far was to the tune of 12 million US $. There have been 27 pirate attacks this year so far on six ships and the EU NAVFOR has caused nine disruptions in its area of operation.

The Council of the EU has decided to extend the Operation Atalanta until December 2012 as it continues to contribute towards providing international maritime security and security of countries in the region. The taskforce operates in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and international law and within the framework of the European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

Rear Admiral Duncan Potts said there were about 25 warships at any given point of time in its area of operation covering the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and a large part of the Indian Ocean, including Seychelles, to include Somali coastal territory as well as its territorial and internal waters.

It represents an area of almost 4,000,000 square kilometres, an area which is one and a half times the size of European mainland. The entire region, he said, was considered as high risk area. “This is a vast area and difficult to patrol. The operation has also ensured the protection of vulnerable shipping within the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) and the high risk area. We can arrest and detain persons intending to commit acts of piracy or armed robbery. We can also seize vessels of the pirates or armed robbers as well as the property on board,’’ he added.

The suspected pirates or robbers can be prosecuted by an EU member State, by regional states or any other third states which wish to exercise its jurisdiction over the them and the seized property.

The funding for EU NAVFOR – Atalanta amounted to 8.4 million Euros in 2010 and 8.05 million Euros for 2011. The budget is shared between the EU member-states, based on their GDP. The composition of EU NAVFOR changes constantly due to the frequent rotation of units and varies according to the monsoon seasons in the Indian Ocean. It typically comprises seven combat vessels, three maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft.

‘Piracy as business model’

Senior officials at Northwood headquarters of EU NAVFOR said that piracy has to be understood as organised crime with kidnapping crews and ships for ransom as the business model. The piracy network leaders, financiers and instigators, largely go unpunished even if some of their so-called ``foot soldiers’’ end up in prisons. The efforts are now focused to damage the underlying business model, including tracking and disrupting the financial flows.

A new regional maritime capacity building mission, currently under preparation, would have two main tasks: strengthening the sea-going maritime capacities of Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles; strengthening the rule of law sector, initially in the Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland by developing a Coastal Police Force.

Rear Admiral Duncan Potts said the EU was convinced that only the establishment of the rule of law and economic development would undermine the breeding ground for organised crime in Somalia. He stressed that the EU was committed to a lasting settlement of the Somali crisis, covering its political, security, development and humanitarian aspects.

(The Hindu correspondent was in Europe at the invitation of the EU Delegation in India)

This story has been corrected for a spelling error.