updated 4/30/2009 2:48:49 PM ET 2009-04-30T18:48:49

Belgium's military will provide onboard protection to commercial ships in pirate-infested waters off Somalia, the government said Thursday.

Teams of eight soldiers will be available to Belgian ships upon request if the EU anti-piracy mission — called Atalanta — can't guarantee protection, Defense Minister Pieter De Crem said.

The costs, $150,000 for the weeklong mission, would be assumed by ship owners. The government said the program could begin as soon as this weekend.

Somalia has become the staging ground for dozens of attacks by pirates. Ship owners sometimes pay large ransoms to free hijacked boats and crew.

Reticent to use military options
Many nations and ship owners have been reticent to use military options because they fear civilian casualties and damage to their ships and cargo. So far, pirates have rarely harmed hostages.

But Belgium decided to act because of the capture of a Belgian dredger and its 10-man crew by Somali pirates two weeks ago. It is moored off Somalia and Belgium is making efforts to get it released.

A European shipping association has called on Belgium to send more ships to protect other slow-moving dredgers. About 200 large dredging ships and auxiliary vessels are slated to leave the Persian Gulf in the coming months and some will have to pass by Somalia's lawless coast to get home to Belgium and the Netherlands.

France spearheaded and plays a key role in the Atalanta mission, and has been aggressive in global anti-piracy efforts. French naval frigates have been patrolling the region for the past year, after a French yacht was seized by pirates with 30 crew aboard. French commandos freed that boat and later two others, and have arrested dozens of pirates in other operations.

For more on: Piracy

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