Berlin – A German cruise ship plans to evacuate passengers in Yemen and fly them to the next port of call Wednesday to avoid any possible encounters with pirates off the coast of lawless Somalia.
Several other cruise operators said Tuesday they were also shifting or canceling tours that would have taken clients past Somalia, as nations and companies around the world debated how to confront the piracy dominating the Gulf of Aden.
The European Union said its anti-piracy mission would station armed guards on vulnerable cargo ships — the first such deployment of military personnel during international anti-piracy operations in the crucial waterway.
But that deployment would not cover cruise ships, and at least two companies have already altered or canceled routes that would have brought passengers within the reach of pirates.
The M/S Columbus, on an around-the-world trip that began in Italy, will drop off its 246 passengers Wednesday at the Yemeni port of Hodeidah before sailing through the gulf, the Hapag-Lloyd cruise company said.
Passengers will take a charter flight to Dubai and spend three days at a five-star hotel waiting to rejoin the 150-meter (490-foot) vessel in Oman’s port of Salalah for the remainder of the trip. The Hamburg-based company called the shift a “precautionary measure.”
Piracy has become rampant off the Somali coast, and recently pirates have begun targeting cruise liners as well as commercial vessels. On Nov. 30, pirates fired upon the M/S Nautica — a cruise liner carrying 650 passengers and 400 crew — but the massive ship outran its assailants. Other ships have not been so lucky.
Pirates have attacked 32 vessels and hijacked 12 of them since NATO deployed a four-vessel flotilla in the region Oct. 24 to escort cargo ships and conduct anti-piracy patrols. Ships still being held for huge ransoms include a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million in crude and a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and heavy weapons.
Hapag-Lloyd decided on the detour for its passengers after the German government denied the company’s request for a security escort through the gulf, company spokesman Rainer Mueller said.
“We won’t travel through the Gulf of Aden with passengers” as long as the German Foreign Ministry’s travel warning is in effect, Mueller said.
Another German cruise ship operator, Stuttgart-based Hansa Touristik, canceled a trip that would have brought the M/S Arion through the Gulf on Dec. 27, company spokeswoman Birgit Kelern said.
Directors of a third German cruise company, the Bremen-based Plantours & Partner, were meeting with ship captains in Venice, Italy to decide whether to go ahead with a trip through the gulf. Passengers will learn Wednesday whether the M/S Vistamar will set sail Dec. 16 as planned, spokeswoman Sandra Marnen said.
A U.S. Navy official said while the danger of a pirate attack was significant, it was not advising ships to avoid transiting the gulf.
“We are advising all ships to transit through the international traffic corridor within the Gulf of Aden,” said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Bahrain-based spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, referring to a security corridor patrolled by the international coalition since August.
Some 21,000 ships a year — or more than 50 a day — cross the Gulf of Aden, which links the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
The growing chaos in impoverished Somalia, which has had no effective government for nearly two decades, has allowed an Islamic insurgency to flourish in the country at the same time as speedboat bandits attack ships offshore.
The EU, meanwhile, launched its anti-piracy mission five days early on Tuesday, before it takes over for the NATO ships next Monday. The EU mission will include six ships and up to three aircraft patrolling at any one time, and will station armed guards aboard some cargo vessels, such as ships transporting food aid to Somalia, according to the British naval commander in charge of the mission.
“We would seek to place vessel protect detachments on board World Food Program ships transiting to Somalia,” British Rear Admiral Philip Jones told a news conference in Brussels. “They are the most vulnerable ships of all, and the best deterrence is achieved by having such a detachment on board.”
The NATO anti-piracy mission has helped 30,000 tons of humanitarian aid reach Somalia since Oct. 24.
In addition, about a dozen other warships from the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, as well as from India, Russia and Malaysia and other nations are patrolling in the area.
The Russian navy said Tuesday it will soon replace its warship in the region with another.
The missile frigate Neustrashimy — deployed from Russia’s Northern Fleet after pirates seized the Ukrainian arms ship in September — has helped thwart at least two pirate attacks. It will remain in the region through December and be replaced by a ship from Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
Jones welcomed an offer from Japan to contribute a vessel to the one-year EU mission, which is the European Union’s first naval endeavor, though the bloc has conducted 20 peacekeeping operations.
Britain, France, Greece, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands will contribute at least 10 warships and three aircraft to the mission, with contingents rotated every three months.