S.Korea to send military officers to Somalia to study anti-piracy troop dispatch


SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea will send a team of military officers to Somalia next week to determine whether Seoul should dispatch naval vessels to the African nation for anti-piracy efforts, the defense minister said Thursday.

Calls for a troop dispatch to waters off Somalia have risen in South Korea after pirates hijacked a cargo ship there last month. It was the third Korean vessel seized there since 2006. The ship and its 22 crew members were freed last week after paying a ransom.

“We’re now considering whether to dispatch troops,” Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee told lawmakers during a parliamentary audit of the ministry.

The South Korean navy will take a lead role during the Somalia visit, Lee said.

Lee did not elaborate, and his ministry could not give more details.

A NATO flotilla sailing toward the Somali coast will begin anti-piracy operations within the next few days, but officials say the alliance is still working out the rules of engagement for the seven ships.

The NATO warships will escort cargo ships carrying U.N. food aid to Somalia and will patrol the pirate-infested shipping lanes off the Somali coast, where 30 ships have been hijacked this year and more than 70 have been attacked.

Somalia, which has had no functioning government since 1991, is the world’s top piracy hot spot. Piracy has emerged as a lucrative racket that brings in millions of dollars in ransoms.

The country is located along the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is one of the world’s busiest waterways with some 20,000 ships passing through each year.

On Tuesday, gunmen in Somalia’s semiautonomous region, Puntland, freed a hijacked Indian vessel and its 13 crew members after a shootout with pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Four pirates were captured and four others escaped. No crew were wounded.