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China Focus: Chinese fleet to escort ships off Somalia
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21:51, December 26, 2008

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The Chinese Navy set sail here Friday afternoon for China's first deep-sea escorting mission against spreading piracy.

The convoy, which includes two of China's most sophisticated naval destroyers, is heading for the Gulf of Aden where pirates have become increasingly common.

Roughly 800 seamen in white Navy uniforms saluted crowds who saw them off at the country's southernmost naval port in Sanya, Hainan island. Among the crew are 70 special forces members who are trained to effectively neutralize pirates in the event of an onboard attack.

The primary mission of the two destroyers, DDG-169 Wuhan and DDG-171 Haikou, and a supply vessel Weishanhu, is to join the multi-national efforts endorsed by four United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions to patrol one of the world's busiest marine routes where surging piracy endangers inter-continental shipping.

The naval task force from the South China Sea Fleet of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is equipped with China's most advanced weapon and surveillance systems.

"It's our job to ensure safety of Chinese merchant vessels across the gulf. It is also China's contribution to the international community for world peace," Rear-Admiral Du Jingchen, who is commanding the expedition, told Xinhua.

Without any landing plans during their three-month mission, Rear-Admiral Du said, "China definitely has neither the intention of threatening interests of any sovereign parties nor the interest in breaking up power equilibrium in the region."

DDG-171 Haikou, one of the most sophisticated PLA Navy destroyers, has both air and underwater defensive capability with a phased-array radar and a vertically launched long-range air defense missile system. The ship's defense capabilities were designed by Chinese engineers.

The multi-purpose missile destroyer DDG-169 Wuhan, the flagship, is equipped with 16 anti-ship missiles, 48 surface-to-air missiles, close-in weapons system and a helicopter.

The most versatile supply vessel in service, Weishanhu with the pennant number of 887, is able to conduct 24/7 replenishment to battle vessels within short periods of time.

All the crew assigned to the three on-duty vessels are quite experienced and the commanding officer himself is chief of staff of the South China Sea Fleet. They have made complete preparations for any challenges that might occur in the armed assignment, Rear-Admiral Du said.

In addition to protecting Chinese civilian vessels and crews, including those from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, the task force would also offer escorts, upon request, to foreign vessels, Du said.

The service will also be available to international humanitarian relief efforts organized by multi-national mechanisms such as the United Nations World Food Program.

After about ten days' voyage to the designated marine zone, the warships are going to start, most likely on Jan. 6., receiving radio appeals in the first ever escorting in high seas and properly react. This service will be provided free of charge.

"We are going to dispel pirates with the presence of the Chinese armada," Rear-Admiral Du said. "Although our combat groups do not rule out fire engagement with those seafaring thugs."

The Chinese government has not mandated the rescue of the hostage Tian Yu 8, a fishing vessel overtaken by pirates Nov. 14, as it does not want to jeopardize negotiations for peaceful recovery, according to the commander.

The first-phase mission is expected to last for three months, followed by possible replacement warships as needed, which would be compatible to any further arrangements of the UN Security Council.

Over the past decades since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the country has never deployed such a muscular overseas naval projection which might be entangled with exchange of fire beyond its territorial seas.

The last time China sent a naval expedition to East Africa was during the Ming Dynasty when emperor's envoy Zheng He led a large armada in the early 15th century to the region for goodwill port calls.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said in a Tuesday statement that China would observe UNSC resolutions and relative international laws in fulfilling its obligations.

A total of 1,265 Chinese merchant ships have passed through the Gulf of Aden so far this year, with seven being attacked. One fishing ship and its 18 crew members are still being held by pirates. Negotiations for their rescue, through various conduits, are underway.

According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau, at least 109 ships have been attacked in the gulf this year. Fourteen ships are currently held for ransom, including a Saudi supertanker Sirius Star and a Ukrainian cargo ship Faina, which was carrying 32 armored tanks.

Since June, the UNSC has adopted four resolutions calling on all countries to take part in patrolling gulf and waters off Somalia. The latest UNSC authorization allowed countries to "undertake all necessary measures in Somalia, including in its airspace" to stop the pirates.

The authorized but voluntary international intervention also includes naval vessels from Denmark, Germany, India, Italy, Russia and the United States -- which are in concerted vigilance over the seaway from the gulf to the Suez Canal, which is the shortest route connecting Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

Source: Xinhua

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