The European Union formally launches its anti-piracy task mission off the Somali coast on Monday, preparing to take over from the NATO flotilla guarding one of the world's most important shipping lanes.
EU foreign ministers meeting Monday will inaugurate the operation in the afternoon, said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for the bloc's foreign policy chief Javier Solana. But the hand-over in the Gulf of Aden does not take place until Dec. 15.
Six EU warships and three maritime reconnaissance aircraft will patrol the region and escort cargo ships carrying relief aid through pirate-infested waters to Somalia, as the NATO vessels have done since the end of October. The NATO ships will return to Europe.
In addition to the alliance's ships, about a dozen other warships from the United States, India, Russia and Malaysia are patrolling the region.
Although the NATO force has successfully delivered nearly 30,000 tons of humanitarian supplies to Somalia, it has not been able to stem an upsurge in pirate attacks off Somalia.
Pirates sailing from a number of Somali ports have attacked 32 vessels and hijacked 12 of them since the NATO operation began Oct. 24.
Under the current U.N. mandate, the international fleet operating off the Horn of Africa has not been able to board seized ships or to free hostage crews.
The EU has conducted 20 peacekeeping operations around the world so far, but the new mission will be its first naval endeavor. The task force - codenamed Operation Atalanta - will have the same duties as the NATO mission, including escorting cargo vessels, protecting merchant ships and deterring pirate attacks.
"It will be an important contribution to addressing one of the most challenging threats to maritime trade, and particularly to the people of Somalia who have had their humanitarian support hampered by acts of piracy," Gallach said.
The EU task force will be commanded by British Vice Admiral Philip Jones.
"This operation under British command, I hope will begin to establish international order in seas that are vital to trade right around the world," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
Somalia has been in chaos for nearly two decades, and the country's Western-backed transitional government has failed to assert any real control since it was formed in 2004. The administration relies on troops from Ethiopia for protection.
About 50 cargo ships transit daily through the Gulf of Aden, a strategic waterway that links the Indian Ocean with the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.
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