GOTEBORG, Sweden (AP) _ Hulking gray naval frigates fanned out across the Gulf of Aden have combined with monsoon storms to sharply reduce pirate attacks in the world's busiest shipping lanes in recent weeks.
But the commanding officer of the European Union armada warned Tuesday that it is too early to declare victory over heavily armed Somali pirates in tiny, fast-moving skiffs.
"This is not a thing where we can say 'job done,"' Rear Admiral Peter Hudson said on the sidelines of an EU defense ministers' meeting.
Hudson's warning came as EU officials hailed their anti-piracy flotilla as a resounding success, saying it has helped shepherd hundreds of thousands of tons of World Food Program aid to starving Somalis and foiled 100 pirate attacks since it began patrolling the Gulf nine months ago.
The EU is joined patrolling the region by the United States, which has been at the forefront of fighting piracy, and NATO, Japan, South Korea, and China.
On Saturday, Turkish marines operating under NATO command captured seven pirates before they could attack two Panamanian-flagged freighters.
Earlier this year, U.S. Navy snipers from the USS Bainbridge killed three Somali pirates holding hostage the American captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, which had been captured April 8 off Somalia.
And just a month ago, pirates opened fire at a helicopter from the American guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville as it flew over a Taiwanese ship being held hostage near the Somali port of Hobyo.
The EU mission, originally slated to last one year, has been extended by a further 12 months to end in December 2010.
Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop visited the Dutch ship currently commanding the EU fleet over the weekend and also praised the naval effort, which helps protect an estimated 35,000 merchant ships that ply the Gulf each year.
But Van Middelkoop cautioned that some merchant ships continue to try to slip through the pirate-infested waters unprotected rather than wait to join a convoy with naval escort, figuring that any delay in delivering their freight will cost them money.
"We can't be responsible for them," Van Middelkoop said. "I would appeal to them: Please don't do it, it is much more responsible to take a certain financial loss and arrive safely than risk being hijacked."
Piracy in the Gulf of Aden soared as the rule of law crumbled in Somalia and organized criminal gangs ramped up the lucrative business of holding ships, their crews and cargos to ransom.
Choppy seas whipped up by monsoon storms largely confine the small skiffs to their home ports during the summer months, but Hudson said that the monsoon season is nearly finished and with it will end the lull in pirate attacks.
"So it's not victory _ far from it _ but we've had a good period of weather that has been supportive of us," he said. "The weather is now back on the side of the pirates and I would expect to see activity increase."
There have been 169 pirate attacks reported off the Horn of Africa this year, including 35 successful hijackings, according to Risk Intelligence, a Danish-based maritime security firm that has tracked pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa since 2004. In all of 2008 there were 46 hijackings in 141 attempts, said Hans Tino Hansen, the company's director.
He said that since May there have only been 37 attacks, five of them successful. "The EU has done a great job, but the recent dive has mostly been due to weather conditions," Hansen said.
EU defense ministers meeting in this Swedish port city of Goteborg on Tuesday said they would look into training Somali security forces in either Djibouti or Uganda as a way of boosting the bloc's eight-ship anti-piracy flotilla. France already is running a training camp in Djibouti.
"Piracy is not going to be solved at sea alone," Hudson said. "The solution to piracy ... rests in Somalia."
What to do with captured pirates remains a vexing issue among the world's navies. Many have been transported to Kenya for trial, and the Dutch _ who are prosecuting five pirates captured by a Danish ship _ are keen to have an international piracy tribunal in the country.
Hudson said the EU also is close to finalizing a deal with the Seychelles for that country to take custody of captured pirates. Even so, some pirates just have their weapons and equipment destroyed and are then released back onto dry land in Somalia.
Part of the success of the EU mission is its cooperation with other navies, Hudson said.
European commanders swap information with other ships to ensure the best possible coverage of the vast area and alert one another to attacks.
"Exchanging tactical information with the (Chinese navy), is not something we expected to be doing a year ago," Hudson said. "But we are now doing it and China is involved in our secure chat rooms, we exchange tactical information."