Addressing pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden at a headquarters press conference, Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, Operations Commander of the European Union Naval Force in Somalia (EU NAVFOR) — Operation Atalanta said European forces protected humanitarian aid arriving to Somalia on World Food Program (WFP) vessels; ensured supply of African Union logistics lines into Mombasa, Kenya; and protected the 30,000 or so ships that passed annually through the Gulf of Aden, among the world’s busiest trade arteries. Hudson said attacks had fallen from 20 per month in the summer of 2009, to between 4 and 5 today, expressing hope that other countries would share in the asset-sapping task of combating the problem.
Over the last six months, 32 WFP ships had been escorted into Somalia, delivering 350,000 tons of food to displaced persons. African Union troops had been safeguarded and European forces had partnered with companies to provide security advice and coordinate activity.
In the Gulf of Aden, ship seizures — which had numbered nearly 25 in 2008 — had led to various Security Council resolutions and involved naval forces from China, the Russian Federation, and Japan, he explained. Work in the Somali Basin was organized around monsoon season. Usually, the period between February and May saw a huge surge in the number of vessels put to sea for piracy. This year, European forces had dismantled over 60 pirate groups and processed some 400 suspects — three times the number seen last year.
As there were not many avenues for prosecution, he said European forces must destroy equipment and ensure that suspects were returned home. “It’s a long progress,” he said, noting that work was done through cooperation, dialogue with industry and, from a European Union perspective, a comprehensive political and military solution to piracy problems in Somalia.
Fielding a question on Somali pirates set adrift in the Gulf of Aden after an attempted attack on a Russian vessel, Mr. Hudson called that type of situation challenging. Some occasions were appropriate for such action. The experience of the Russian vessel was not without precedent, he said, citing similar instances involving Dutch and Danish ships. He could not comment on the individual operation, but, from European Union perspective, ensuring that the pirates were treated appropriately would be at the forefront of any operation.
To a critique that international forces had not paid sufficient attention to illegal fishing, he said such concerns were often aired as justification for piracy. The European forces’ joint action plan had been amended so that fishing vessels were identified 200 miles off the Somali coast, and that such information would be relayed. He did note, however, that very little fishing activity had been seen inside 200 miles of the Somali coast, whether by Japanese or Spanish boats, or by local subsistence fishing communities. To a question on how many captured pirates had been released, he said that, of 400 captured over about three months, 40 had gone on to prosecution.
Asked how equipped the European forces were to collect evidence, especially in the push to prosecute people, he said the heart of the matter involved ensuring that institutions were prepared to exercise their duties. Not many European States were prepared to bring pirates back for prosecution, and he was grateful for the efforts by Kenya and the Seychelles in that regard. European forces worked to ensure that any evidential package prepared was in line with what institutions could handle.
Responding to a query on the latest tactics, he said pirates were tenacious and fearless, as traveling 600 or 700 miles off the Somali coast took courage. Generally, between 60 and 70 pirate groups would flood an area. They had seized a significant number of Taiwanese fishing vessels, which he suspected would be used to launch other attacks. They had adapted and refined their methods, allowing them more flexibility on the high seas.
Moreover, he said that pirates were often only 14 or 15 years old. The allure of lucrative, life-changing ransom money was attractive. He had come across many pirate ships that were in mechanical failure and a perilous humanitarian situation and who actually had to be rescued.
Asked about any interviews conducted with former captives, he said the European forces worked with major merchant trade organizations and international chambers of shipping to ensure that, when vessels were released, the events of the attack could be recorded. That dialogue was important to European and other maritime forces.
To a question on the level of humanitarian aid into Somalia, he said the Al Shabaab insurgent group had forced WFP to scale back its activities. WFP shipments had to travel north from the WFP distribution centre in Mombasa and the European forces were trying to work with the flag States of ships taking part, perhaps in placing military forces on humanitarian vessels.
As for Kenya’s decision to stop prosecuting pirates, he said those pirates transferred to Kenya over the last year continued to be processed. Brussels had a team in the region and the High Representative of the European Union would tour both Kenya and the Seychelles, among other places, to discuss that issue.