DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A new international naval force under American command will soon begin patrols to confront escalating attacks by Somali pirates after more than 100 ships came under siege in the past year, the U.S. Navy said Thursday.
But the mission — expected to begin operations next week — appears more of an attempt to sharpen the military focus against piracy rather than a signal of expanded offensives across one of the world's most crucial shipping lanes.
The force will carry no wider authority to strike at pirate vessels at sea or specific mandates to move against havens on shore — which some maritime experts believe is necessary to weaken the pirate gangs that have taken control of dozens of cargo vessels and an oil tanker.
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Pentagon officials described it as a first step to create a dedicated international structure — combining military force, intelligence sharing and coordinated patrols — to battle piracy from lawless Somalia.
The sharp spike in pirate attacks caused a "situation where there were competing priorities" between counterterrorism missions in the region and protecting merchant ships, said Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington.
There currently are more than a dozen warships in the vast expanse off the coast of Somalia, from naval giants such as the U.S., Britain and Russia, emerging powers such as China and India and regional forces such as Iran.
The announcement on the new mission — issued by the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain — said more than 20 nations are expected to take part and it will be headed by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight.
U.S. Navy officials declined to list the nations, but suggested it would likely comprise many of those already in the region.
It's highly unlikely, however, that nations such as Iran would agree to operate under U.S. command. But Lt. Stephanie Murdock, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman, said the new force would "work with any nation that wants to join."
Defense Department press Secretary Geoff Morrell told a Pentagon news conference in Washington that anti-piracy efforts have been strengthened with China's participation and some countries' military forces using "more aggressive tactics ... to thwart would-be hijackings."
The new force underscores the urgency to act after a stunning rise in pirate assaults off the Horn of Africa last year: At least 111 ships targeted and 42 of them commandeered, including a Ukrainian cargo shop loaded with tanks and heavy weapons and a Saudi oil tanker with $100 million worth of crude.
At two more ships have been hijacked this month, leaving about 15 vessels and about 300 crew members in pirate hands, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.
Most of the attacks have occurred in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The waters have increasingly become scenes for showdowns between well-outfitted merchant ships and pirates swarming the hulls on skiffs and armed with light weapons and grappling hooks — and often asking for millions in ransom from owners if they manage to take control.
On Christmas, a German military helicopter responded to a distress call from an Egyptian cargo vessel under siege from pirates, who fled when the chopper arrived.
New Year's Day saw pirates seize another Egyptian cargo vessel with 28 crew, while a Malaysian military helicopter saved an Indian tanker from being hijacked and a French warship thwarted an attack on a Panamanian cargo ship and captured several pirates.
Just a day later, crewmen on a Greek-flagged oil tanker used high pressure water cannons to fight off a pirate ambush.
The U.S. Navy and other nations have international authority to battle pirates in the open seas and come to the aid of vessels under attack. But forces have been stymied on how to respond to ships under pirate control, fearing an all-out assault could endanger the crew members held hostage.
"This task force does not does have any greater rules of engagement," said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman. "It does, however, bring a greater focus to counter-piracy operations under one command."
But it also carries the suggestion that it could one day take stronger measures. The U.S. contribution to the force is expected to include cruisers and destroyers, many carrying H-60 helicopters, said Campbell. The flagship, the USS San Antonio, is an amphibious ship capable of bringing hundreds of Marines ashore.
This is the type of action needed to truly rattle the pirates, said Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.
"Right now there is no major deterrent," he said. "The military maybe chases away the pirates, but they regroup and come back for another attack on another ship. Piracy will continue until their networks and bases are hit."
On Thursday, the new president of a breakaway Somali region of Puntland, Abdirahman Mohamed Farole, promised to crackdown on piracy. Puntland is a pirate hub, where local authorities have been accused of helping them and taking a cut of the huge ransoms.