NAIROBI (Reuters) - Canada is deploying a frigate off Somalia to escort U.N. World Food Program (WFP) ships carrying vital aid and protect them from pirate attacks, the Canadian government said on Wednesday.
"Food supplies are urgently needed in Somalia but deteriorating security has made delivery difficult by land and sea," Canadian Defence Minister Peter Gordon MacKay said in the statement.
"Canada is stepping up to the plate by tasking (the frigate) Ville de Quebec with the role of escorting World Food Program ships to ensure their safe arrival at designated ports."
Canada is seeking formal authorization from Somalia's interim government to escort the WFP vessels into the Horn of Africa nation's territorial waters, the statement said.
The United Nations warned last month that food shipments to Somalia were grinding to a halt as very few vessels were willing to risk entering the country's pirate-infested waters.
The WFP called on governments to provide naval escorts, saying that it had received no offers of naval protection since late June, when a Dutch frigate escorted a WFP vessel safely into the capital Mogadishu.
France and Denmark had also previously provided escorts, and on Wednesday the U.N. agency warmly welcomed the Canadian move.
"This is a critical moment when more food is needed for a growing number of hungry," WFP's country director for Somalia, Peter Goossens, said in a separate statement.
Fighting between the fragile Somali government and Islamist insurgents has triggered a humanitarian crisis that aid workers say may be the worst in Africa.
At least a million people have been uprooted by violence since early last year, and their plight has been compounded by record-high food prices, hyper-inflation and drought.
The U.N. relief agency delivers about 90 percent of its food aid to Somalia by sea, and says that air and overland routes are not practical given the scale of the operation.
But pirates have attacked at least 26 ships off Somalia so far this year, compared with 31 attacks in the whole of 2007.