ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
SIEGEL: From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Ships from some of the world's strongest navies are patrolling the Gulf of Aden. They're trying to stop an epidemic of piracy in one of the world's major trade routes. Based along the lawless coast of Somalia, the pirates have collected millions of dollars in ransoms for ships and their crews captured on the open seas. NPR's Corey Flintoff spent a week on a French warship that's been protecting merchant ships and searching for pirates.
COREY FLINTOFF: At first, it seems incredible that pirates could operate anywhere, given the overwhelming technical superiority of modern navies with their radar and aerial surveillance. But that's before you see the vast body of water that is the Gulf of Aden. More than 20,000 ships pass through here each year on their way to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean, but the area is so great that it's possible to sail for days without seeing another ship on the horizon. The French frigate, Premier Maitre L'Her, was part of a European Union effort to stamp out piracy and protect shipping, but her captain, Lieutenant Commander Alexis Beatrix, knows how difficult that can be.
Lieutenant Commander ALEXIS BEATRIX (Premier Maitre L'Her): It's very difficult for you to assess whether this craft is a fishing craft, or if they are pirates. Given that, it's very easy to shift from fishing to piracy.
FLINTOFF: Captain Beatrix swings his vessel out of the harbor in Djibouti, a former French colony right at the choke point where the Gulf of Aden flows into the Red Sea. His mission is to escort a freighter chartered by the World Food Program as it delivers food aid to the port of Bossaso on Somalia's north coast. The Premier Maitre L'Her is a light warship, smaller than an American destroyer, but it's armed with everything from machine guns to Exocet missiles. On the second day out, the captain puts his gunners through their paces, firing at balloons dropped in the water.
(Soundbite of gunshots)
FLINTOFF: It's not that Beatrix really expects the lightly armed pirates in their speedboats to confront a warship. But he says that one thing that haunts navy commanders is the specter of the USS Cole, blown up in the harbor at Aden in a terrorist bombing that killed 17 American sailors in 2000.
Lieutenant Commander BEATRIX: What happened to USS Cole could happen everywhere around the world. It was not a very difficult attack, but very, very efficient of course, as we know.
FLINTOFF: On the morning of the second day at sea, the frigate encounters an Arab-styled dhow, a wooden vessel with a high, sloping stern, the kind that's used by fishermen and traders who sail between Somalia and Yemen.
Lieutenant Commander BEATRIX: What is particularly interesting is that she's towing a skiff that could make her a mother ship with a skiff that is kitted for pirate attack - maybe.
FLINTOFF: When they can't raise the boat on the radio, the ship's executive officer uses a high-powered bullhorn to ask the boat's captain to identify himself and his vessel's country of origin.
(Soundbite of announcement)
Unidentified Man: Fishing vessel, fishing vessel, receive. You have a warship on your port side. I request you to stop, request you to stop.
FLINTOFF: When the vessel doesn't comply, the captain sends out a boarding party, a Zodiac raft packed with specially trained sailors to inspect the boat. The executive officer tries to assure the captain of the dhow that the warship doesn't have hostile intentions.
(Soundbite of announcement)
Unidentified Man: Fishing vessel, fishing vessel. This is a friendly approach, friendly approach.
FLINTOFF: The boat proves to be a small trader, carrying fuel for fishing boats. The sailors find no weapons, nor any sophisticated communications gear that might be used to contact pirate bases onshore. Captain Beatrix calls his men back to the ship to be ready to repeat this process over and over during the coming days, combing the sea for small anonymous vessels, any one of which could be a pirate. Corey Flintoff, NPR News the Gulf of Aden.