NATO to deploy anti-piracy fleet to Somali coast

NATO has agreed to send a fleet of warships to patrol the coast of Somalia in an effort to deter pirates.

NATO has decided to send a fleet of warships to the coast of Somalia in an effort to deter pirates.

Defence ministers from NATO-member countries who were meeting in Hungary this week have agreed to send a seven-ship force to the region within two weeks.

"Nations agreed that NATO would make use of that presence to do two things: To ensure that the World Food Program ships have the escort they need to deliver their essential food supplies, and more generally to patrol the waters around Somalia to help stop acts of piracy," NATO's chief spokesman James Appathurai said Thursday in Budapest. 

The NATO fleet will patrol the same region where a Canadian frigate has been escorting vessels carrying United Nations food shipments.

HMCS Ville de Québec was deployed to the waters off Somalia in August at the request of the UN World Food Program. ((Pte. Johanie Maheu/DND))

HMCS Ville de Québec was deployed to the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, in August at the request of the UN's World Food Program. It was to provide protection for ships carrying food and other supplies through the waters off Somalia.

The Defence Department said in August there had been 24 attacks by pirates this year in the area, one of the busiest waterways in the world, although none of the WFP ships had yet been targeted.

The Canadian mission ends this month and the UN had asked other nations to take up the task.

Several European Union countries have already said they would launch an anti-piracy patrol, while Russia has also agreed to co-operate.

The 20-member crew of a Ukrainian ship hijacked two weeks ago were still being held hostage Thursday as pirates continued to try to negotiate a ransom for their release. The situation is particularly fragile considering the tanker's cargo of 33 tanks and assorted other heavy weaponry,

"We are open for give-and-take negotiations," pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told the Associated Press via satellite telephone. The pirates have demanded $20 million US for the ship's release.

Despite his willingness to negotiate, Ali vowed to "cause a lot of problems for the world" if foreign powers use force to end the standoff. If the ransom is paid, he said, the ship will be released.

Foreign powers have been given licence to use force against the pirates by the Somali government.

The UN Security Council this week called on countries to send naval ships and military aircraft, and U.S. warships are being diverted from counterterrorism duties to respond to the sea bandits.

Six U.S. warships have been deployed around the captured vessel and a Russian frigate is expected within days.

Other Somali pirates are holding 67 Filipino sailors after a Japanese-operated chemical tanker was hijacked nearly two months ago.

With files from the Associated Press