updated 5/13/2009 4:38:54 PM ET 2009-05-13T20:38:54

Searches of captured mother ships operating off the Somali coast have revealed for the first time that pirate gangs are coordinating their attacks against commercial shipping, the commander of the European Union's naval task force said Wednesday.

British Rear Admiral Philip Jones said that in recent weeks his flotilla had captured four of the mother ships used to resupply the small pirate speedboats that operate far offshore in the Indian Ocean.

"We do fairly extensive trawls of all the vessels we capture to look for ... evidence we can use to work (out) ourselves what the pirates tactics are," Jones told reporters.

The most recent evidence, he said, shows the mother ships are telling each other about potential targets.

"They're exchanging positional information, they're exchanging information about ships they've seen or may have tried to attack," he said. "Obviously, that's a significant development."

52 pirates detained so far
The EU flotilla's primary task is escorting ships chartered by the World Food Program to carry food aid to Somalia. In the five months it has been deployed, the flotilla's warships have escorted 23 vessels that have delivered enough food to feed 1.5 million people in the war-ravaged nation.

So far, the five EU warships have detained 52 pirates, Jones said. Thirty-eight were handed over to Kenya for prosecution, he said.

The EU ships coordinate their operations with NATO, U.S. and other warships trying to thwart the attacks. About 18-20 international naval vessels normally patrol the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean at any one time.

Despite the international naval presence, attacks on commercial shipping off the Somali coast have exploded in the last two months as the pirates have taken to sailing far out into the Indian Ocean to attack vessels beyond the patrol range of the warships.

Since the small speedboats cannot operate that far from their bases, they require mother ships — mostly converted fishing trawlers or small cargo vessels — to resupply them.

No evidence in ships searched
Jones said he was "bemused" by media reports that the pirates were receiving intelligence on the movement of commercial shipping from sources in the West, adding that the searches of the mother ships had yielded no such evidence.

"The only thing we have seen in the ships operating in the Somali basin is evidence for the first time that there can be a degree of coordination between mother ships," Jones said.

Jones, who commands the EU squadron from his headquarters in Northwood near London, is slated to be replaced by another Royal Navy admiral at the end of this month.

The anti-piracy mission — known as Operation Atalanta — is the first naval mission mounted by the 27-nation European Union. It is scheduled to remain on station off the Horn of Africa until the end of this year.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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