NAIROBI, Kenya — For the first time, sophisticated U.S. military surveillance drones capable of carrying missiles have begun patrolling waters off Somalia in hopes of stemming rising piracy.
Three ships have been seized in a week off Africa's lawless eastern coast and Vice Adm. Robert Moeller, the deputy commander for the U.S. Africa Command, said pirates continue to pose a significant challenge.
With the monsoon season now ended, there have been a rash of attacks as pirates return to the open seas. More than 130 crew members from seven ships are currently being held, including about 70 from the latest attacks.
In an effort to stem the surge, unmanned U.S. military surveillance planes called MQ-9 Reapers stationed on the island nation of Seychelles are being deployed to patrol the Indian Ocean in search of pirates, Moeller told the Associated Press in an interview at command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The patrols began this week, military officials said.
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The 36-foot-long Reapers are the size of a jet fighter, can fly about 16 hours and are capable of carrying a dozen guided bombs and missiles. They are outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting.
Military officials said Friday that the drones would not immediately be fitted with weaponry, but they did not rule out doing so in the future.
Analysts said they expected the Reapers would also be used to hunt al-Qaida and other Islamist militants in Somalia. While Moeller said the aircraft would "primarily" be used against pirates, he acknowledged they could also be used for other missions.
Even the drones and the presence of an international naval armada are unlikely to deter pirates, Moeller said. Pirates are "prepared to take their chances against the warships that are patrolling the area, simply because the potential for big financial gain is significant," he said.
Cyrus Mody, an expert on piracy at the London branch of the International Maritime Bureau, said he expects the drones will help ward off attacks by acting as an early-warning system for tankers and other commercial vessels traversing waters off the Somali coast.