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Video: Pirate-hunting headquarters

The EU's anti-piracy Operation Atalanta fields distress calls from the Gulf of Aden and sees some success.

That drop is due in large part to Atalanta, maritime officials attest, both for its interventions at sea and its constant efforts to educate shipowners and crews about how to keep the pirates from scrambling aboard, often by very low-tech adjustments like barbed wire that are remarkably effective.

“It’s possible for a well-handled merchant ship to make it so difficult for the pirates to get on board that they actually give up,” Comm. Adam Peters said from the Joint Operating Center in Northwood.

U.N. resolutions gave Operation Atalanta the right to use all “necessary measures, including the use of force” to stop attacks, but the troops also have the right to arrest the perpetrators if there is enough evidence present to warrant it. Under an agreement with Kenya, the suspects can be transferred into the Kenyan judicial process. A similar arrangement has just been concluded with the Seychelles.

NATO has not managed to make the same kind of deal, leading to frustrating situations in which suspected pirates have had to be released after being captured by NATO warships, drawing criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that this “sends the wrong signal” to pirates.

But increasingly, attention is turning to what everyone agrees is the only real solution longterm: changing the situation inside Somalia. Hudson said Atalanta’s role in this at present is “just creating space because the solution will be political, it will be on the ground, for the politicians in Africa, Europe, America, wherever it may be, to come up with alternative strategies.”

Toward that end, the EU held a pledging conference for Somalia last April where $250 million was promised toward increasing security. And now EU defense ministers have given the green light on a land-based training program for forces that will get them closer to the day they can give the pirates a run for their money.

Atalanta is currently scheduled to run through December 2010, and it’s hardly imaginable the fleet would be brought home then. As Hudson said on the sidelines of an EU defense ministers meeting in Stockholm where his operation was highly praised, “This is not a thing where we can say ‘job done.’”