The Chinese naval task force set sail at 1:50 p.m. Friday from a port here in the southernmost island province of Hainan for Somalia. The ships will take part in an escort mission against piracy.
The warships of the People's Liberation Army Navy, decorated with colored ribbons and flowers, were cast off at the military port by crew members in white naval uniforms who saluted the crowds seeing them off.
Two destroyers, DDG-169 Wuhan and DDG-171 Haikou, and the supply ship Weishanhu from the South China Sea Fleet will cruise for about 10 days before arriving in the Gulf of Aden, joining a multinational patrol in one of the world's busiest sea lanes where piracy endangers international shipping.
The task force carries about 800 crew members, including 70 soldiers from the Navy's special force. It's equipped with missiles, cannons and light weapons.
Photo taken on Dec. 25, 2008 shows the Chinese Navy's supply ship Weishanhu in Sanya, capital of South China's Hainan Province. The Chinese Navy's three-ship fleet awaiting sail to waters off Somalia has finished its preparations for the overseas deployment, the fleet commander said Thursday.(Xinhua Photo)
"The expedition will show China's active attitude in maintaining the world's peace and safety," Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the Navy, told Xinhua at a send-off ceremony before the flotilla departed.
"It could also embody the Navy's resolution and capacity to accomplish diversified military missions to deal with multiple threats to national security," the admiral said.
He said the expedition is the first occasion that China has deployed warships far from its coastline to protect the nation's strategic interests and also the first time it has implemented an international humanitarian mission overseas, which will play an important role in peacekeeping in the region.
"All crew members have full confidence in their ability to fulfill the escort mission," the task force's commander, Rear-Adm.Du Jingchen, said at the ceremony.
The task force has many experienced crew members who have successfully carried out other overseas missions. The current mission might, however, be a long one that poses unforeseen challenges, said Du, who is chief of staff of the Navy's South China Sea Fleet.
The task force will protect Chinese vessels and crews, including those from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, that seek protection when passing through the area, as well as foreign ships on request.
The first phase of the mission will last for three months and the Navy will send fresh ships to relieve the task force at an appropriate time, depending on the situation and the UN Security Council decision.
It will also help ships carrying humanitarian relief for international organizations such as the UN World Food Program. The task force will not charge escort service or protection fees to ships, whether foreign or domestic.
The task force will be ready to receive protection appeals on Jan. 6.
A ceremony is held before a Chinese naval fleet sets sail from a port in Sanya city of China's southernmost island province of Hainan on Dec. 26, 2008. The Chinese naval fleet including two destroyers and a supply ship from the South China Sea Fleet set off on Friday for waters off Somalia for an escort mission against piracy.(Xinhua/Zha Chunming)
"We are supposed to encounter conflicts where we might have to fire on pirates in those waters, but our primary target is not striking them but dispersing them," said Du, speaking on board the destroyer Wuhan.
He said the task force has not been given specific instructions about the Chinese fishing vessel Tian Yu 8, which is still held by pirates, since the government has not given up negotiating with the pirates.
The destroyer Wuhan will serve as the flagship during the three-month mission, according to 40-year-old captain Long Juan, who added that the crew had conducted repeated drills especially targeted at fighting piracy.
For Wuhan's companion destroyer, Haikou, the voyage is a public debut. It was commissioned in 2005. However, Capt. Zhou Fuquan said all crew members were well-trained and confident in the mission.
The supply ship Weishanhu, China's biggest domestically made re-supply ship, will provide logistic and medical support during the mission.
"The ship can supply the fleet with green vegetables and fresh fruits for months," Capt. Xi Feijun said, adding that medical teams onboard can perform all surgery, aside from brain procedures.
The three captains agreed that the unfamiliar water and weather off the Somalia coast and the three-month mission might pose challenges, but they said all crew were confident and honored to carry out the mission.
The Ministry of Defense officially announced the deployment on Tuesday, saying that China would observe UN resolutions and international laws in fulfilling its obligations.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said that 1,265 Chinese commercial vessels had passed through the gulf so far this year and seven had been attacked. The Tian Yu 8 and 18 crew members were still being held by pirates.
The International Maritime Bureau, based in London, said more than 109 ships had been attacked in the gulf this year and 14 ships are currently held for ransom, including Saudi supertanker the Sirius Star and the Faina, a Ukrainian cargo vessel carrying 32 tanks.
The UN Security Council has adopted four resolutions calling on all countries and regions to take part in patrolling the gulf and waters off Somalia since June. The latest one authorized countries to "undertake all necessary measures in Somalia, including in its airspace" to stop the pirates. Source: Xinhua