Eight European Union countries offered on Wednesday to create a maritime security force aimed to fight piracy off Somalia, the French defense minister said - a move that could give the U.S. Navy crucial support in the hazardous waters. Last week's hijacking of a Ukrainian ship carrying heavy weaponry off Somalia has raised the stakes for such an operation, one analyst said. The ship, MV Faina, was carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, rifles, and heavy weapons - and 20 hostages, one of whom has died, apparently of illness.
The hostages remain on board and the Faina is surrounded by U.S. warships, with American helicopters buzzing overhead. NATO also has military ships in the Indian Ocean.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin, speaking at a meeting of EU defense ministers in Deauville, said the informal session was not the proper setting for an official launch of the operation. But he said he hoped the needed approval would come when they meet in Brussels on Nov. 10.
Details such as the number of EU vessels that would patrol the increasingly hazardous waters off Somalia, and the timetable for deployment, still need to be worked out, he told a news conference. "You don't lead an operation of this breadth in the space of a few days," said the minister, who is hosting counterparts as part of France's presidency of the European Union, which began July 1 and runs through year-end.
"We have to solve this," Morin said. "Piracy didn't start yesterday or the day before yesterday - but years ago. Of course it is increasing considerably, because no day goes by in which there is no attack on boats."
Morin pointed to a "very great willingness" to contribute to the operation, and said Belgium, Cyprus, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden have already volunteered. The minister said he proposed that Britain host the mission's operational headquarters. But he acknowledged it was only "probable" that Britain would take part because "our British colleague told us that his boats are already overused." He was apparently referring to British Defense Secretary Des Browne. Recently pirates have targeted the Indian Ocean waters off eastern Somalia. Some 62 ships attacked in the notorious African waters this year.
Roger Middleton, an Africa researcher at Britain's Chatham House think tank, said Europeans have been planning the operation for a while, but the seizure of heavy weaponry off Somalia's coast "helped move it up their agenda."
"This has been in the pipes for a while," Middleton said. Any additional European vessels brought to bear against Somali pirates would be an "extremely useful" addition to international forces operating in the area, he said.
He said French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been leading the push for such an operation.