Nato said the seven frigates from a group that was to have taken part in an exercise in the Suez Canal region would arrive off the Somali coast within two weeks in response to a request from the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

The force, which currently consists of destroyers from Italy and the United States, frigates from Germany, Greece, Turkey and Britain and a German auxiliary vessel, will stay in the region until at least December.

Millions of dollars have been paid to the pirate gangs operating in area, which is vital to shipping between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, pushing up insurance costs and threatening humanitarian supplies.

MV Faina standoff

Six US warships have already been deployed in the area and have surrounded the Ukrainian MV Faina amid fears that its weapons, including 33 battle tanks, might fall into the hands of armed groups in Somalia.

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However, a spokesman for the pirates has said that the vessel, which has 20 crew members on board, could be released within days if the $8m ransom was paid.

"We are open for give-and-take negotiations," Sugule Ali, a spokesman for the pirates, told The Associated Press news agency.

He also said that the Faina's crew were holding up well despite their ordeal.

"Their chef still prepares their food for them," Ali said. "They are healthy and have no worries. But of course their only worry is when they will gain their freedom. Their feeling is typically that of hostages - no more, no less."

The pirates, who seized the vessel in late September, had reportedly originally asked for $20m.

Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman from the US 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said the navy was in regular contact with the crew and would not allow the pirates to offload the weapons.

Ransom

Will Geddes, a London-based security specialist, told Al Jazeera that in some cases there was no choice but to pay a ransom.

"When you look at Somalia and the frequency of piracy attacks that have been taking place, we're up to about 61 this year alone and a large majority of those will involve a ransom of payment being demanded, certainly for the return of the cargo or for the crew," he said.

"We're talking about a very concentrated, well armed group."

Mark Caltar, a piracy expert and operations director of Olton Solutions, told Al Jazeera that the payment of any ransom would be a win for the pirates and a loss for the United Nations.

"What we have here is an epidemic, a plague of piracy," he said. "If people ... see that the pirates around Somalia can get away with this now, and six US warships are hanging around doing absolutely nothing, then you are encouraging piracy on a global status."

Crew freed

Late on Wednesday, the 19 crew members, including 15 Filipinos, from another vessel were freed unharmed by another group of pirates after a $1.6m ransom was reportedly paid.

The Japanese-operated chemical tanker, which was seized in August was allowed set sail for a port city in the United Arab Emirates.

"The pirates disembarked and the ship sailed away. Its 25 crew members are safe," Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf, assistantfisheries minister for Somalia's northern region of Puntland, told the Reuters news agency.

Claro Cirstobal, a Filipino foreign affairs department spokesman, said the crew members aboard the vessel were "safe and sound despite the ordeal they have undergone".
 
The United Nations Security Council earlier this week called on countries to send naval vessels and military aircraft to support anti-piracy efforts.

The call came after European Union countries said they would launch an anti-piracy patrol, and Russia announced it would co-operate with the West in fighting the pirates. 

Somalia's transitional government, which is under pressure from near-daily attacks by armed opposition groups, has given foreign powers the freedom to use force against the pirates.