SANYA, Hainan, Dec. 26 (Xinhua) -- The Chinese naval fleet set sail at 1:50 p.m. on Friday from a port here in the southernmost island province of Hainan for Somalia. The ships will take part in an escort mission against piracy.
The warships of the People's Liberation Army Navy, decorated by colored ribbons and flowers, were unmoored at the military port by crew members in white naval uniforms who saluted the crowds who saw them off.
Two destroyers, DDG-169 Wuhan and DDG-171 Haikou, and the supply ship Weishanhu from the South China Sea Fleet will cruise for about 10 days to arrive in the Gulf of Aden, joining the multinational patrol in one of the world's busiest sea lanes where surging piracy endangers international shipping.
The fleet will carry about 800 crew members, including 70 soldiers from the Navy's special force. It's equipped with missiles, cannons and light weapons.
"All crew members have full confidence in their ability to fulfill the escort mission," the commander, Rear-Adm. Du Jingchen, told Xinhua at a send-off ceremony before the fleet departed.
The fleet has many experienced crew members who have successfully carried out other overseas mission. The current mission might, however, be a long one that poses unforeseeable challenges, said Du, who is chief of staff of the Navy's South China Sea Fleet.
The escort fleet will protect Chinese vessels and crews, including those from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, that seek protection when passing through the area, as well as foreign ships n request.
The first phase of the mission will last for three months and the Navy will send new ships to relieve the fleet at an appropriate time, depending on the situation and the UN Security Council decision.
It will also help ships carrying humanitarian relief for international organizations such as the UN World Food Program. The fleet will not charge escort service or protection fees to ships, whether foreign or domestic.
The fleet will be ready to receive protection appeals on Jan. 6.
"We are expected to encounter conflicts where we might have to fire on pirates in these waters, but our primary target is not striking them but dispersing them," said Du, speaking on board the destroyer Wuhan.
He said the fleet has not been given specific instructions about the Chinese fishing vessel Tian Yu 8, which is still held by pirates, since the government has not given up negotiating with the pirates.
The destroyer Wuhan will serve as the flagship during the three-month mission, according to the 40-year-old captain Long Juan, who added that the crew had conducted repeated drills especially targeted at fighting piracy.
For Wuhan's companion destroyer, Haikou, the voyage is a public debut. It was commissioned in 2005. However, Capt. Zhou Fuquan said all crew members were well-trained and confident in the mission.
The supply ship Weishanhu, China's biggest domestically made re-supply ship, will provide logistic and medical support during the mission.
"The ship can supply the fleet with green vegetables and fresh fruits for months," Capt. Xi Feijun said, adding that medical teams onboard can perform all surgery, aside from brain procedures.
The three captains agreed that the unfamiliar water and weather off the Somali coast and the three-month mission might pose challenges, but they said all crew were confident and honored to carry out the mission.
The Defense Ministry officially announced the deployment on Tuesday, saying that China will observe UN resolutions and international laws in fulfilling its obligations.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said 1,265 Chinese commercial vessels had passed through the Gulf so far this year and seven had been attacked. One fishing ship and 18 crew members were still being held by pirates.