BERLIN – A cruise ship will evacuate passengers before sailing past the Somali coast and fly them to the next port of call to protect them from possible pirate attacks, German cruise operator Hapag-Lloyd said Tuesday.
An official with the European Union's anti-piracy mission said separately that it would station armed guards on vulnerable cargo ships — the first such deployment of military personnel during the international anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
The MS Columbus cruise ship will drop off its 246 passengers Wednesday at the Yemeni port of Hodeidah before the ship and some of its crew sail through the Gulf, the Hamburg-based cruise company said in a statement.
The passengers will take a charter flight to Dubai and spend three days at a five-star hotel waiting to rejoin the 490-foot vessel in the southern Oman port of Salalah for the remainder of a round-the-world tour that began in Italy.
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Hapag-Lloyd said the detour was a "precautionary measure," given rampant piracy off the coast of lawless Somalia that recently has targeted cruise ships as well as commercial vessels, including a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million in crude and a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and other weapons.
Pirates last week fired upon the M/S Nautica — a cruise liner carrying 650 passengers and 400 crew members — but the massive ship outran its assailants. Other ships have not been so lucky. Pirates have attacked 32 vessels and hijacked 12 of them since NATO deployed a four-vessel flotilla on Oct. 24 to escort cargo ships and conduct anti-piracy patrols.
The Hapag-Lloyd cruise company planned the detour for its passengers in order to heed a German Foreign Ministry travel warning, after the German government denied the cruise company's request for a security escort through the Gulf, company spokesman Rainer Mueller said. As long as the travel warning is in effect, he said, "we won't travel through the Gulf of Aden with passengers."
A U.S. Navy official said, however, that while the danger of a pirate attack was significant, it was not advising ships to avoid transiting the Gulf.
"We are advising all ships to transit through the international traffic corridor within the Gulf of Aden," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Bahrain-based spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, referring to a security corridor patrolled by the international coalition since August.
Some 21,000 cargo ships a year — or more than 50 a day — cross the Gulf of Aden, which links the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, international agencies have said. The growing chaos in impoverished Somalia, which has had no effective government for nearly two decades, has allowed an Islamic insurgency to flourish in the country while speedboat bandits attack ships offshore.
The EU launched its anti-piracy mission five days early on Tuesday, before it takes over for the NATO ships next Monday. The EU mission will involve six ships and up to three aircraft patrolling at any one time, and will station armed guards aboard the most vulnerable cargo vessels, such as ships transporting food aid to Somalia, according to the British naval commander in charge of the mission.
"We would seek to place vessel protect detachments on board World Food Program ships transiting to Somalia," British Rear Admiral Philip Jones told a news conference in Brussels. "They are the most vulnerable ships of all, and the best deterrence is achieved by having such a detachment on board."
The NATO anti-piracy mission has also focused on escorting the U.N. aid agency's chartered vessels, helping some 30,000 tons of humanitarian aid reach Somalia since Oct. 24.
In addition, about a dozen other warships from the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, as well as from India, Russia and Malaysia and other nations are patrolling in the area.
The Russian navy will soon replace its warship in the region with another from a different fleet, navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said Tuesday in Moscow.
The missile frigate Neustrashimy, or Intrepid — deployed from Russia's Northern Fleet after pirates seized the Ukrainian ship in September — has helped thwart at least two pirate attacks, Dygalo said. It will remain in the region through December and be replaced by a ship from Russia's Pacific Fleet.
Jones welcomed an offer from Japan to contribute a vessel to the one-year EU mission. It is the European Union's first naval endeavor, though the bloc has conducted 20 peacekeeping operations.
Britain, France, Greece, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands will contribute at least 10 warships and three aircraft, with contingents rotated every three months.