Italy takes command of Red Sea mission, looks to bolster sea security

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Rome assumes command of Operation Atalanta. On Monday, through an official ceremony, Italian Rear Admiral Francesco Saladino took over from the Portuguese Rogerio Martins de Brito in leading the European Union’s anti-piracy operation between the Red Sea and Somalia.

For the next six months, he will coordinate the bloc’s efforts from onboard the Bergamini-class multirole frigate Martinengo, working to ensure the safety of ships that transit through an increasingly complex and tense area.

The Yemen-based Houthi rebels have been threatening Western commercial vessels over the past weeks, with the latest attack occurring on Monday against a Marshall Island-flagged, Greek-operated carrier heading toward Iran.

“We are aware of the different threats in this area,” Rear Admiral Saladino told ANSA, remarking on the “continuous and intense exchange of information” held with “numerous international operators” to better understand the risks and effectively defend merchant traffic.

Operation Aspides is Italian, too. The EU also entrusted Italy with the new mission’s tactical command. Aspides (“shield” in Greek) will operate “in close liaison” with the United States-led Operation Prosperity Guardian as well as with Operation Atalanta, noted Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto. The mission will begin on February 19, after Brussels gives the final go-ahead, and will patrol the waters between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

“We are aware of the challenges ahead of us, but we are also aware of our ability to face them successfully, thanks to the professionalism and experience of our Armed Forces as well as the solid cooperation with our international allies and partners,” remarked the minister while commenting on Read Admiral Saladino’s handover.

As he told the Italian Senate on Friday, Rome will contribute to Aspides with “at least three naval units, intelligence and logistical support, surveillance and early warning air capability, cyber protection, and strategic communication.” It’s also evaluating the possibility of offering air assets with surveillance capabilities.

It’s not just shipping times. Although Houthi rebels in Yemen ostensibly share the cause of Hamas, the breadth of the conflict is far wider, the minister told La Verità on Monday. He highlighted the economic repercussions of the threat for Western ships and its impact on commerce, especially Italy’s, while Russian and Chinese cargoes could sail through the Red Sea undisturbed.

He remarked that this creates “unacceptable” imbalances in international trade, adding that Chinese operators are already contacting Western firms, including Italian ones, to promote their services – shipping that costs far less and is not threatened by attacks. By contrast, the shipping costs of Western carriers transporting goods towards Italy and Europe have been increasing as much as five times, he added.

“It’s a new economic hybrid war that could tank entire economies and marginalize the Mediterranean,” warned the minister.

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