Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Thursday, 8 January 2009

US to lead new anti-pirate force

US navy ships off coast of Somalia - 3/12/2008
Maritime experts say increased naval patrols have lowered pirate hijackings

A new international force to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia is being formed and will be headed by an American admiral, the US navy says.

More than 20 nations are expected to contribute to the force, due to be fully operational later in January.

After more than 100 attacks last year, the International Maritime Bureau said increased naval patrols had reduced hijackings in December last year.

The EU formed an anti-piracy task force in December.

Ships from other navies, including Canada, Iran, India and China, have also been patrolling one of the world's busiest sea lanes - the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean leading to and from the Suez Canal.

Security measures

US Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight has been named the commander of the new force, called Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), the US Fifth Fleet said in a statement from its headquarters in Bahrain.

The Sirius Star at anchor off Somalia after being hijacked in November
The Sirius Star is one of about 15 vessels Somali pirates still hold

A spokeswoman for the force, Commander Jane Campbell, said the area the pirates operate in is larger than the Mediterranean Sea and the shipping lane the force will patrol is 480 miles (780km) long.

About 60 warships would be required to effectively patrol this sea lane, she said, while about one-third of that number had been committed to the new force.

Cmdr Campbell said merchant vessels could take heightened security measures to thwart pirates, including pulling up ladders they leave hanging from their sterns to allow pilots to come aboard, travelling at high speeds to create a large wake to prevent pirates from boarding, and keeping a sharp watch and maintaining communications with other ships and the new task force.

Despite only two successful hijackings in December, Somali pirates still hold about 15 ships carrying more than 200 crew members.

One of these is the Saudi oil tanker the Sirius Star, captured in November.

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