NAPLES, Italy — European naval forces plan to disrupt pirate operations off the coast of Somalia by hunting down and sinking the pirates’ supply ships, rather than simply trying to defend cargo ships as they transit through the area.

The Somali pirates use "mother ships" — usually loaded with ammunition, fuel and food — that allow them to operate farther out to sea and attack vessels on heavily used shipping routes, such as the Gulf of Aden and Somali basin.

Defense ministers from the European Union had to expand the objective of the EU-led Operation Atalanta, which now gives navies the authority to go after and "disrupt" these pirate supply ships, according to British Cmdr. John Harbour, spokesman for the EU Naval Force Somalia.

"We’re taking the fight to the pirates," Harbour said. "We know roughly where they’re operating from, and will position our resources to [capture] their mother ships."

Pirates often use the mother ship as a staging base while one or two smaller skiffs carry out attacks on transiting vessels. If officials feel they have enough evidence against the pirates, the pirates will be taken into custody and typically transferred to Kenya or the Seychelles for prosecution.

If there is not enough evidence, the EU will destroy the mother ship and a skiff but leave the pirates a way to return to Somalia.

"We mean to take them out of the game," Harbour said. "We’ll disrupt their operations for a few weeks to a month, and even though they’re likely to return, at least for a month, that one group will not be available to attack."

The EU’s new, more aggressive plan makes sense, said Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa expert with the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House think tank in London.

"I think that considered targeting of mother ships could be a very useful tactic," Middleton said. "The attacks in the Indian Ocean are reliant on mother ships, so anything that targets these is likely to be more successful than trying to respond to individual attacks.

Mother ships tend to stay in one area, from which multiple attacks can be launched, Middleton said.

"Given the great difficulty of protecting shipping in the Indian Ocean, a strategy to target mother ships seems to be a sensible idea," he said.

Until this point, Operation Atalanta’s main mission has been to provide escorts to merchant vessels carrying humanitarian aid of the World Food Program and to ships of the African Union Mission in Somalia. The mission has expanded to include protecting vulnerable ships, such as slow-moving oil tankers, in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia.

This was a successful weekend for EU naval forces, which disrupted six would-be pirate attacks and detained 35 suspected pirates, all Somali citizens, Harbour said.

Additionally, a French fishing trawler under attack collided with the assaulting pirate skiff, tipping the skiff.

"The pirates were all swimming around and the people who they attacked picked them out of the sea and saved their lives," Harbour said. The six suspected pirates now are on the fishing trawler.

Naval forces are awaiting rulings from Kenya and the Seychelles to determine which countries will take in and prosecute the 41 men detained over the weekend, he said.

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