DJIBOUTI, Dec 19 – Warning sirens blare at a French airbase in Djibouti as news filters through that pirates have attacked a Chinese ship.
"There’s been a pirate attack, we’ll have to go…" said David Dugue, a sub-lieutenant on a French Navy Atlantique 2 maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
The plane is part of France’s contribution to the European Union’s anti-piracy mission Operation Atalanta, the 27-member bloc’s first-ever joint naval operation.
The year-long EU mission will also include 20 warships from Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.
They will escort merchant ships delivering UN humanitarian aid for Somalis, and protect others sailing through the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden off east Africa, armed with a mandate to use force against the pirates.
The twin-turboprop Atlantique has been stationed in Djibouti for almost three weeks now and makes reconnaissance flights across the Gulf of Aden for up to eight hours a day.
The waters, off the Horn of Africa, are infested with Somali pirates. Around 100 ships have been attacked since the start of the year and 240 sailors remain kidnapped.
The Gulf of Aden is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and the hijacking of ships can seriously disrupt trade, increasing delivery costs.
"We’ve already thwarted five attacks. The pirates appear to favour attacking in the morning," said Captain Florent Mouton, in charge of the plane, adding that many of the gangs disguise themselves as fishermen to avoid detection.
"The pirates are determined, the last attacks have been well organised," said Lieutenant Commander Alexis Beatrix, captain of the Premier Maitre L’Her, a small warship in the vanguard of the EU mission along with a German frigate.
"But we are equipped and ready to use all the necessary means to guarantee the ships’ safety."
Beatrix believes piracy cannot be completely eradicated, but said the EU mission would serve as "a very good deterrent".
French forces, which have been stationed in Djibouti since 1977, will mainly be providing logistical support to the EU mission.
"Under normal circumstances, around 60 French ships would pass through Djibouti each year, so we are quite capable of providing support," said Major Etienne du Fayet, a French military spokesman.