European Union Says Thorny Legal Obstacles Challenge Piracy Mission

The European Union said Thursday it's trying to navigate complicated international maritime law as it cracks down on the pirates terrorizing merchant ships off the Horn of Africa.

EU defense ministers meeting informally in Prague said thorny legal obstacles are complicating the 27-nation bloc's first naval mission.

Ivan Dvorak, defense policy chief for the Czech Republic, which holds the EU presidency, said ministers were discussing how to hand off pirates taken into custody, who should try them — and exactly what laws apply.

The EU is working to strengthen Operation Atalanta, a flotilla of EU warships patrolling the Indian Ocean and Somalia coastline.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the mission has been a success, despite the legal challenges.

"The attacks are dwindling," he told reporters, adding that the EU should push to have suspects tried before an international criminal court.

Dvorak told reporters the EU is trying to improve its crackdown by boosting cooperation with China, India, Saudi Arabia and the United States — other countries that have sent vessels to the Gulf of Aden to track down and arrest pirates.

Authorities say marauding criminals in speedboats off the Somali coast attacked more than 100 ships last year, including high-profile hijackings with multimillion-dollar ransom demands.

The EU responded in December with the new anti-piracy patrols, which will remain in action at least through the end of the year. NATO also is sending a mission to the region this month.

At its full strength, the EU flotilla will have between four and six ships and two to three maritime reconnaissance aircraft. It will use unmanned drones for long-range patrols.

Officials declined to comment Thursday on reports that the EU may decide to make its operation permanent. But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said there was broad consensus on the need to stick with it.

"Practically everyone indicated they want to continue with this operation," Solana told reporters.

Jung said there are now 26 warships off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean — an area nearly four times the size of Texas. He did not offer a breakdown, but the ships clearly include ones from the EU and countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Last week, the EU overcame one of its legal hurdles, signing an agreement with the government of Kenya that will allow that country to prosecute suspects captured by European forces on the high seas.

The issue is a murky one, since legal experts differ on whether international law grants the EU as a body the same standing it does to countries.