Armed escort on merchant ships
Global - Commercial ships crossing pirate-infested Somalian waters have started ferrying unusual cargo: Armed guards.
According to London-based trade group, the International Maritime Bureau, there were 324 attempted boardings by pirates globally in the first 10 months of 2009, an increase from 194 during the same period in 2008.
Close to half of the raids took place in the Gulf of Aden.
This increase of successful hijackings in the region from 42 in 2008, to 47 though slight, was surprising. Because a trading downturn has reduced the number of ships at sea, and a 15-vessel military contingent dispatched by NATO and the EU, was suppose to tackle the problem.
Pirates, who once used small arms as their weapon of choice, have now resort to heavier weapons such as grenade launchers, shipping and security firms say. They were sometimes operating from "mother vessel" that facilitated them to strike at vessels on the high seas more than 1,000 km off shores.
"Still, the majority of the international maritime community resists using lethal force because it "poses incredible logistical challenges, potentially violates many national and international laws, and is contrary to maritime conventions," says James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp.
An armed conflict leading to lawsuits, goods damaged or a sunken ship could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, an amount far exceeding the few million dollars in ransom that pirates usually demand.
A.P. Moller-Maersk, a Danish shipping and oil group confirmed on Tuesday that it hired a Tanzanian navy vessel in late 2008 to keep pirates off its tanker in waters off Somalia. The decision of hiring armed escorts was sparked after an attack on another of their vessel in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008.
"We only paid salaries and bunker (fuel) for the Tanzanians. It was a one-off," said Maersk spokesperson Michael Storgaard.
Danish Shipowners Association's Jan Fritz Hansen said international navy escorts in the Gulf of Aden had helped ships through those waters. But such arrangement do not exist down south in the Indian Ocean, where things are "a little outside the normal procedures", can be dangerous.
"We don't see a problem with this," Hansen said of the hiring of navy vessels. Besides, it is noted that recent armed conflicts have had some success repelling pirates.
It also looks like pirates are not taking any time off. The M/V Pramoni, a chemical tanker from Singapore, was taken in the Gulf of Aden following two hijackings after Christmas. And the New Year's Day hijacking of U.K.-flagged Asian Glory, which transports cars, brought the total number of ships being held so far to a tally of 14.
Today, most fast ships, which cruise at speeds of 25 knots, can still outrun pirates. But oil tankers and bulk carriers, which typically cruise at 12 knots, aren't so nimble.
The association recommended that the international community work with countries of the region to establish coast guards to patrol waters off East Africa and to improve intelligence and real-time pinpointing of pirate ships.
Recent risk assessments by insurance companies and others have concluded that "sometimes the only way of keeping the ship safe is an armed guard," commented Peter Hinchcliffe of the International Chamber of Shipping, another London-based trade group.
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