UN welcomes French offer to counter Somali pirates

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NAIROBI, Sep 27 (Reuters) The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has welcomed an offer by France to help guard ships from pirates as they carry desperately needed food aid to Somalia.

''We are grateful to the government of France for this generous offer, which would reduce the threat of piracy and allow WFP to feed more hungry people in Somalia,'' WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said in a statement today.

The Horn of Africa country's coastline is the world's most dangerous waterway, reflecting widespread instability onshore, where a fragile interim government is struggling to impose its authority while fighting off Islamist-led insurgents.

Violence in the capital Mogadishu this year has uprooted tens of thousands of residents, with many living in shelters in atrocious conditions outside the city and surviving on handouts.

Under the French proposal, WFP said, French navy ships would escort vessels carrying WFP food in Somali waters for two months, accompanying them to Mogadishu port, which is guarded by Ugandan troops from an African Union peacekeeping force.

Outlining the dangers, the International Maritime Organisation says there were 17 pirates attacks on craft off Somalia in the first half of 2007, compared with eight during the same period last year.

Two of the recent attacks were on ships that had just unloaded WFP supplies in the country.

''Some 80 per cent of WFP food assistance for Somalia moves by sea, and pirate attacks have threatened to cut WFP's main supply route, jeopardising rations for the 1.2 million people WFP expects to be feeding by the end of 2007,'' the statement said.

Most pirates attacks did not seem to be aimed at stealing cargo, it said, but were rather designed to force ship owners to pay a ransom for vessels and crew held hostage.

The pirates are highly mobile, it added, using fast vessels and satellite navigation equipment to assault ships far out at sea, sometimes more than 200 nautical miles off the coast.

An earlier upsurge of piracy in Somali waters in 2005, including the hijacking of two ships contracted for WFP, forced the UN agency to suspend all deliveries by sea for weeks.

REUTERS ARB PM1345

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