Anti-piracy task force hits choppy waters

NORFOLK

The Navy’s new anti-piracy task force, led by two Norfolk ships, hit some choppy waters Thursday as pirates seized a German gas tanker off the Horn of Africa.

Rear Adm. Terry McKnight, commander of the force, said later in the day that the Navy is adjusting strategies as it tries to patrol and monitor 1.1 million square miles of treacherous sea centered on the Gulf of Aden.

Seven pirates boarded the German ship Longchamp, loaded with liquefied petroleum gas, about 60 miles off the southern coast of Yemen, according to published reports. The pirates subdued the 13-person crew and turned the ship toward Somalia. The ship’s management company reported that none of the sailors had been injured.

Pirates raked in an estimated $30 million in ransom last year, seizing more than 40 vessels off the Somali coast. Thursday’s incident marked the first hijacking since the task force, whose commanders are aboard the amphibious ship San Antonio, was established on Jan. 15.

In a telephone interview from the San Antonio, McKnight said the Navy is moving a shipping channel south from its original location. The channel, comparable to an interstate highway, allows Navy ships to track and protect merchant vessels as they steam from the Indian Ocean toward the Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea. About 23,000 ships travel the corridor annually.

But the shipping lane took the merchant vessels through fertile fishing grounds, prompting numerous false alarms from captains who believed they might be under attack from fishing boats, McKnight said.

The task force includes the San Antonio, the destroyer Mahan and the British Royal Navy frigate Portland. The U.S. warships also are coordinating with about 20 naval ships from 14 different nations, including Russia and China, McKnight said.

The Navy views the mission as a law enforcement operation.

“The ships are very busy out here,” McKnight said. “They’re doing a lot of training,” he said, adding that sailors are learning new techniques for visiting and boarding small vessels. “This is not one of our core missions.”

An eight-person Coast Guard unit trained in anti-drug-smuggling operations has led training and also joins the patrols, said Lt. j.g. Greg Ponzi.

Ponzi, leader of the Coast Guard unit, said the Navy sailors are being trained in preserving evidence and thwarting criminal activities. Merchant vessels also have been cooperating by registering details of their voyage, such as cargo, speed and destination, on a Web site to allow naval ships to track their passage.

But even the most diligent Navy efforts can’t ensure safe passage for every vessel crossing the Gulf of Aden, McKnight said. “We will not ever be able to stop piracy until we get a stable nation in Somalia,” he said.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report



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