EU eyes December launch for Somalia anti-piracy

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union aims to launch a planned air and naval force in December to combat piracy threatening sea lanes off Somalia, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said Tuesday.

Piracy has soared off the coast of Somalia, with at least 30 ships hijacked this year, earning an estimated $18-30 million in ransom payments and turning the area into the world’s most dangerous waterway.

EU envoys decided Tuesday that British navy vice-admiral Philip Jones would head the bloc’s planned operation and kick-off planning with the aim to launch the operation in December, Javier Solana said in a statement.

The operation’s headquarters would be in London, the statement said.

“Javier Solana is confident that these undergoing preparations will allow the EU, in due time, to make an important contribution to the World Food Program, to the protection of vulnerable vessels off the coast of Somalia and to the fight against piracy,” the statement said.

The World Food Program requires military escorts to bring food aid to the 2.4 million people it feeds in the war-torn Horn of Africa country.

France said earlier this month that at least 10 EU countries were willing to take part in the anti-piracy operation and that it hoped the plan could be finalized next month.

The countries included France, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Belgium, Sweden and probably Britain, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said after talks among EU defense ministers in Deauville, France.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said EU states planned to deploy three frigates, a supply ship and three surveillance ships. He said Germany planned to send a frigate.

The sealane in the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia links Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal and is critical to Gulf oil shipments.

(Reporting by Ingrid Melander)