January 8, 2009 / 5:20 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. Navy launches force to crack down on piracy

DUBAI, Jan 8 (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy will launch a force to combat piracy in the waters off Somalia as foreign navies try to stem a sharp rise in attacks in the region which threaten key oil shipping lanes, the U.S. Navy said on Thursday.

The new anti-piracy force would start in mid-January and be an offshoot of the U.S.-led coalition of naval forces which has been operational in the region since 2001.

“Right now this does not change our rules of engagement ... but as we progress (with the task force) we will get a change in how we deal with piracy,” said Lieutenant Stephanie Murdock, spokeswoman for the Bahrain-based U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“It’s just the U.S. force but we do expect it to become more multinational,” she told Reuters by telephone.

Foreign navies have rushed to the busy shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa to try and curb the attacks which have brought the pirates millions of dollars in ransoms and caused shipping insurance costs to soar.

Chinese warships began an anti-piracy mission in the seas off Somalia this week, while the European Union set up an anti-piracy naval task force under British command in the region last month, using warships and aircraft from several nations.

NATO ships started operations to combat piracy off the Somali coast in late October.

There were nearly 100 pirate attacks in Somali waters last year, with about 40 ships taken, including a Saudi tanker holding $100 million worth of crude oil.

The rise of pirate attacks had prompted the creation of a special U.S.-led coalition naval force, said a spokeswoman for the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a 20-nation naval coalition in the Gulf of Aden and off parts of Africa’s coast.

“Piracy has become a bigger beast,” said Lieutenant Virginia Newman, an officer from Britain’s Royal Navy, part of CMF.

Navies operating in the region have been taking any pirates they have apprehended to whichever country was closest, said the U.S. Navy’s Murdock.

“I don’t know what happens to them once they are dropped off there,” she said.

“Ideally the international community will come to some kind of agreement on how pirates will be adjudicated.” (Reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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