NATO has replaced the flotilla conducting anti-piracy patrols off Somalia for the past three months with a new force that will continue the operation "indefinitely," a spokesman said Monday.
Last month, NATO defense ministers met in Brussels to consider ways of tackling the problem of combatting piracy in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. They ordered the long-term deployment of a naval squadron _ known as Standing Naval Maritime Group 2 _ to the region.
The new force will continue to operate in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, where international patrols involving warships from NATO, the European Union and other nations have been working to reduce attacks on merchant ships by Somali pirates.
"The transition was seamless and clearly demonstrates NATO's resolve to combat the evils of 21st-century piracy," said Chris Davis, spokesman for NATO's anti-piracy effort.
The new task force will consist of five warships from Britain, the United States, Greece, Italy and Turkey. It will be commanded by a British officer, Commodore Steve Chick, from his flagship, HMS Cornwall.
"By rotating the (naval forces) through the region, a powerful NATO presence can be maintained in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa indefinitely," Davis said in a telephone interview from NATO's anti-piracy headquarters in Northwood, near London.
Despite the presence of about two dozen foreign warships backed up by maritime patrol planes off Somalia, the number of hijackings has not dropped noticeably in recent months. Experts say the seagoing gangs have evolved new tactics to beat the patrols, including expanding their area of operations and targeting slow-sailing vessels riding very low in the water.
On Sunday, the pirates released the crew of a Belgian ship seized 10 weeks ago after a ransom was paid.
The 10-member crew of the Pompei dredger was in good health and sailing the ship to an unidentified harbor where it will arrive in a few days, the Belgian government said.
Defense Minister Pieter De Crem told a news conference in Brussels that the ship's owners paid a ransom to release the ship and crew. He declined to say how much, but said pirates had demanded $8 million.
A plane dropped the money into the sea near the Belgian vessel Saturday, De Crem said.