BEIJING, Jan 6 – A Chinese naval convoy arrived on Tuesday in the Gulf of Aden on a landmark mission to protect the country’s shipping from Somali pirates and escorted its first four vessels, state media reported.
The four ships escorted were Chinese merchant vessels, including one from Hong Kong, Xinhua news agency said in a dispatch filed from aboard the destroyer Wuhan.
The naval task force, deploying two destroyers and a supply ship, marks China’s first potential combat mission beyond its territorial waters in centuries.
The fleet was deployed in response to an escalation of pirate attacks on merchant ships, including Chinese vessels, plying the crucial shipping route linking Asia and Europe.
The missile-armed destroyers DDG-171 Haikou and DDG-169 Wuhan, and the Weishanhu supply ship, are among China’s most sophisticated and have all entered service this decade, Xinhua said previously.
They will operate alongside other international warships patrolling the area near the Gulf of Aden, part of the Suez Canal route.
Rear Admiral Du Jingchen, commander of the task force, was quoted by Xinhua saying the escort mission "would strictly observe UN resolutions and relevant international laws to fulfill our obligations."
The fleet will mainly protect Chinese vessels, including those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, but on request will also escort foreign ships passing through the area, Xinhua has said.
China warned Somali pirates late last month that the naval ships would be prepared to use force against them.
"(If) our naval vessels are ambushed by pirate ships we will resolutely fight back to protect our own safety," Rear Admiral Xiao Xinnian told reporters in Beijing.
He added that the ships would "suppress" any acts of piracy they came across.
Xinhua said the task force included about 800 crew members including 70 soldiers from the navy’s special forces, and was equipped with missiles, cannon and lighter weapons.
After three months the ships will be replaced by another flotilla, depending on decisions by the UN Security Council and the situation at the time, reports have said.
China has said its warships will investigate any suspected pirate vessels, and approach them and demand that they show their relevant documents and certificates.
Two helicopters accompanying the flotilla will be used during such tasks, military officials said earlier.
About 100 ships — several of them Chinese — were attacked by Somali pirates in 2008.
Some companies have begun sailing their vessels around Africa, a longer, more expensive route, to avoid the increasingly brazen pirate attacks — including the seizure of a Saudi supertanker carrying two million barrels of oil.
China’s navy has said the flotilla faces up to 30 organised groups made up of as many as 1,000 pirates.