A NATO flotilla sailing toward the Somali coast will begin anti-piracy operations within the next few days, but officials said Wednesday the alliance was still working out the rules of engagement for the seven ships.

The NATO warships will escort cargo ships carrying U.N. food aid to Somalia and will patrol the pirate-infested shipping lanes off the Somali coast, where 30 ships have been hijacked this year and over 70 have been attacked.

"They will have the rules of engagement that they need, the operational plan that they need. I would not be surprised to see all of this complete in the next two days," said alliance spokesman James Appathurai.

The seizure Sept. 25 of the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina, laden with 33 battle tanks and heavy weaponry, has focused international attention on the pirate menace.

U.S. warships have surrounded the Faina for weeks to prevent the pirates from trying to offload the ship's weapons, and a Russian guided missile frigate Intrepid is traveling to the area.

The NATO naval group is made up of destroyers from Italy and the United States, frigates from Germany, Greece, Turkey and Britain, and a German auxiliary vessel.

"There will be a number of very competent and very effective military ships ... to provide presence, deterrence and, where necessary and possible, to intervene to prevent acts of piracy and to escort ships," Appathurai said.

Details of which tasks each ship will take on, and the rules for how they will handle the pirates, are still being worked out.

"This is obviously a very, very complicated thing they are trying to do," Appathurai said. "There are a host of pirates, but they don't identify themselves with eye-patches and hook hands that they are pirates."

Experts predict the NATO crews will find it difficult to distinguish between normal Somali fishing boats and pirate vessels on the prowl.

Somalia, caught up in an Islamic insurgency, has not had a functioning government since 1991 and cannot guard its coastline.

Gunmen in Somalia's semiautonomous region, Puntland, freed a hijacked Indian vessel and its 13 crew members Tuesday after a shootout with pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Four pirates were captured and four others escaped. No crew were wounded.

About 20,000 ships pass annually through the Gulf of Aden, a strategic body of water between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean.

The operators of the Faina said Wednesday they had failed to raise enough money to meet the bandits' multimillion-dollar ransom demand.

Viktor Murenko, head of operator Tomex Team, told The Associated Press the firm has accumulated only US$1 million toward the ransom. He said the bandits were demanding $20 million, even though the pirates themselves have lowered the ransom demand to $8 million.

Murenko said the Faina's acting captain, Viktor Nikolskih, told him by telephone Wednesday that the crew had received food and water and were in satisfactory condition.

"The guys are worn out, but none of them got sick," Murenko said. "But they are severely demoralized."

The ship's captain died shortly after the seizure, apparently of a heart condition.