China dispatching ships to battle Somali pirates

BEIJING (AP) -- China said Thursday it is preparing to dispatch naval warships to join international forces battling Somali pirates, the first such far-ranging mission for the Chinese navy.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Beijing welcomed stronger international cooperation in countering piracy, which has become a major problem in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast, one of the world's busiest waterways.

"China is actively considering sending warships to participate in convoy actions in the Somali sea and Gulf of Aden. China is now actively preparing for this," Liu said without elaborating on details of the mission. He said formal information would be released later.

The mission would be a first for the Chinese navy, which has mainly concentrated on coastal defense and not protection of ships in overseas waters.

The Global Times, a newspaper published by the Communist Party, said the fleet could consist of two cruisers and one large supply ship.

"Piracy has become an international enemy, posing great threat to international navigation, trade and security," Liu said.

China's participation comes after an unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to authorize nations to conduct land and air attacks on the increasingly audacious pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Citing data from the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program, Liu said 300 ships were attacked by pirates last year in that area. More than 40 ships were hijacked in the first 11 months of this year.

During the same period, 1,265 Chinese ships have passed through the area - an average of three to four a day, he said. About 20 percent of them have come under attack, Liu said.

This year, there have been seven cases of pirate attacks involving Chinese ships or crews, he said, including a Chinese cargo ship attacked Wednesday off the coast of Somalia. The crew of the Zhenhua 4 was rescued with the help of an international piracy force.

The ship, which belongs to the China Communications Construction Co., came under attack by nine armed pirates who boarded the vessel, Liu said.

State media reported the crew fought back using a high pressure water hose and Molotov cocktails before retreating to their cabins.

Crew members also sent a distress call to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, which alerted an international naval force that sent two helicopters and a warship to the rescue.

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