A European Union flotilla will begin anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia next week, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Tuesday.
The six warships and three maritime reconnaissance aircraft will replace a NATO naval force that has been patrolling the region and escorting cargo ships carrying relief aid to Somalia since the end of October.
Although the NATO ships have successfully delivered nearly 30,000 tons of humanitarian supplies to the impoverished nation, they have not been able to stem the upsurge in pirate attacks on foreign shipping in one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.
Solana said the EU warships will arrive on Monday, and the hand-over with the NATO force will take place on Dec 15.
The task force - codenamed Operation Atalanta - will be the EU's first naval operation. It will have the same duties as the NATO mission, including escorting cargo vessels, protecting merchant ships and deterring pirate attacks.
"These tasks will be done with very robust rules of engagement," Solana told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council renewed its authorization for countries to use military force against the gunmen operating off the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.
The resolution extended for one year the right of nations with permission from Somalia's interim government to enter Somali waters to pursue and attack pirates. The US-drafted text was adopted unanimously by the 15-nation council.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the EU deployment.
"I think this is necessary, and the past days have shown that the presence on the African coast has already saved a few ships from being hijacked," he said as he arrived for the NATO meeting.
On Tuesday, NATO reported that an Italian destroyer, Luigi Durand de la Penne, prevented the hijacking of five merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden. The destroyer positioned itself between the small pirate boats trying to board the cargo ships and used its helicopter to repel them.
Besides the NATO ships, 10 other warships from the United States, India, Russia and Malaysia are patrolling the region at present.
Yemeni ship released
Somali pirates have freed a Yemeni cargo ship they seized last week after successful talks between regional authorities, clan elders and the gunmen, a local official said yesterday.
"The Yemeni ship was released last night after long discussions," said Ali Abdi Aware, state minister of Somalia's northern Puntland province. "It left Eyl and is heading to Yemen. The crew are safe and no ransom was paid."
The MV Amani, owned by Yemeni shipping firm Abu Talal, has seven sailors on board. It was seized on Nov 25 as it carried 507 tons of steel from Yemen's Mukalla port to Socotra Island.
Eyl is a remote former fishing village on the Puntland coast that has become a well-defended base for the pirates.