Page last updated at 21:06 GMT, Monday, 23 February 2009

Somali pirate patrol: Day five

HMS Northumberland has had rather less joy catching pirates

The BBC's Jonah Fisher has joined British Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland as it patrols the Gulf of Aden in an EU taskforce to deter Somali pirates.

In the fifth and final instalment of his diary from the ship's deck, our correspondent asks whether such patrols can succeed in the troubled region.


This morning at about 1130 HMS Northumberland arrived in the port of Djibouti.

For the crew of the ship engine trouble means they'll be turning around and heading back to Oman.

On the trail of Somali pirates

But for both the ship and me our time on "pirate patrol" has come to an end.

The most tangible sign that the Northumberland has made a difference during its three months with the EU anti-piracy taskforce has been its success escorting ships carrying food aid into Somali ports.

It has had rather less joy catching pirates or stepping into prevent attacks. On three occasions, the most latest being the case of the MV Saldanha this weekend, the frigate has arrived just too late.

Whether because they were too far away - or because no alarm was raised - the crew has three times had the frustrating experience of watching a hijacked ship sail off over the horizon.

Inevitable weaknesses

Several people have emailed to ask why the taskforce is not mandated to retake captured ships. There are several reasons.

First, it is an operational one - the Northumberland's captain Martin Simpson was at pains to stress that he would need a much more robust force - including two helicopters - to ensure that his crew were not at risk. Boosting the force would increase the costs - and yet still in such a large area it would be impossible to ensure everyone was protected.

Secondly and most importantly, it is not what the shipping community want. If a merchant vessel is transporting $100m (£69m) of oil and 23 crew, its owners would much rather pay a ransom than risk a bloodbath and the loss of the cargo.

The taskforce stress that they act as a deterrent and are focusing their patrolling on narrow corridors in the Gulf of Aden.

But the brazen theft of the Saldanha just 60 miles (97km) from the Northumberland on Sunday illustrates the inevitable weaknesses that still exist when a handful of warships attempt to cover a million square miles of water.

With Somalia in ruins the lure of piracy is unlikely to diminish anytime soon.

The question then for the countries with warships in the region is this: Do they have the long-term commitment to keep funding a force that is at best a sticking plaster for the problem?

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