By Barry Moody
ROME (Reuters) - Italy will deploy a special naval force on merchant vessels to protect them from Somali pirates, in an escalation of international efforts to prevent attacks that cost the world economy billions of dollars each year.
The new strategy, announced by Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa on Tuesday, came the day after another Italian vessel was hijacked off the anarchic east African country.
Many ships already carry private security contractors to counter the scourge of Somali piracy, but deployment of military forces is a significant boost in measures that have previously been hampered by disputes over the legality of using lethal force against pirates.
La Russa said the force of naval soldiers would be divided into 10 groups of six to protect vessels using the busy but highly vulnerable waterways in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. It would be based in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Somali pirates operate hundreds of miles off the coast in vast tracts of ocean by using mother ships from which small boats are launched carrying men armed with rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles.
The latest Italian vessel to be hijacked, the Montecristo, was attacked 620 miles off the Horn of Africa coast on Monday morning, its owners said. La Russa said none of the 23 crew from Italy, India and Ukraine had been harmed.
The commander of the Italian navy, Admiral Bruno Branciforte, told reporters in a joint news conference with La Russa that the naval force would be deployed quickly, after its rules of engagement had been defined.
A decree law allowing the use of private security contractors and military forces was passed in parliament at the beginning of September. The defense ministry signed a protocol on Tuesday with Italian shipowners on deployment of the force, for which the owners will pay the costs.
"The operating area of Somali pirates is a zone through which passes a third of the West's oil and 20 percent of other cargo, it is a zone of primary economic importance," said shipowners federation president Paolo d'Amico.
The Montecristo, a 55,675-ton bulk carrier, was attacked by five men in a small boat, its owner the D'Alesio Group said. A pirate told Reuters by phone that it was under their control.
PIRATES TAKE BILLIONS OF DOLLARS
Somali pirates, operating from the shores of the lawless state in the Horn of Africa, have raked in millions of dollars a year in ransoms from scores of hijacked ships from around the world, including oil super tankers.
The Italian move was welcomed by Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) which represents more than 80 per cent of the world's merchant fleet.
"We do indeed want more governments to deploy armed military guards on merchant ships whilst they are transiting the high risk piracy area," he said.
"The Italian move is an example to other governments of the need to take this issue very seriously indeed. This year alone 400 seafarers have been held hostage by Somali pirates, and 15 have lost their lives."
Some 24 Italian ships have been hijacked this year in the area compared to 31 last year but the high season for piracy is about to begin after the end of the monsoon. The Montecristo is the third Italian ship in the hands of pirates among a total of around 17 being held for ransom.
Last month the shipping industry called on the United Nations to create an armed military force to be deployed on vessels to counter the escalating menace from armed seaborne gangs.
While there has been a growing acceptance of using armed security guards, sovereign military forces are preferred by the shipping industry because they have clearer rules of engagement and the reduced risk of legal issues in the event of fatalities.
Negotiations often take many months before hijacked ships and crews are released for ransom. The Socotra 1, a Yemeni-owned ship, was seized on Christmas Day 2009 and is still being held.
A spokesman for the D'Alesio group old Reuters on Tuesday there had been no contact with the crew since the hijacking.
"What interests us at the moment is to bring the members of the crew to safety," Nello D'Alesio, the group's Vice President, said in a statement on Monday night.
The ship left Liverpool on September 20 heading for Vietnam, and passed through the Suez canal at the beginning of October. It was escorted by a Japanese warship -- part of an international anti-piracy force in the area -- as it crossed the Gulf of Aden.
While naval patrols, including vessels from the European Union, the United States and other nations such as South Korea, Iran and Turkey, have curbed the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden, piracy in the Indian Ocean has continued to rise due to the vast tracts of water involved, which represent a huge logistical challenge for foreign navies.
(Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli and Giselda Vagnoni in Rome, Jonathan Saul and David Cutler in London; Editing by Giles Elgood)