ABU DHABI // Private security contractors could play a valuable role in countering maritime piracy, the British minister for Africa said during a visit to the UAE yesterday.
The number of companies offering antipiracy training and protection has soared in recent years due to the rise of the threat, although not without controversy.
As long as they are closely regulated, contracted security could be useful at sea and on land in Somalia, said the British minister, Henry Bellingham.
Some companies have sought deals with Somalia's regional governments to train local law enforcement officials, while others have placed armed guards aboard ships to ward off pirates.
Many companies are registered in Britain and staffed by former military personnel from the UK, US and other countries.
The trend has generated debate in shipping, defence and government circles, with some backing the need for effective protection and others fearing the lack of regulation and the threat of escalating violence.
Mr Bellingham expressed confidence in the companies.
He said they were "setting the highest possible standards" and that British companies - some contracted by his government - were "carefully regulated".
He believes they fulfil security needs while the Somali authorities lack the ability to control their waters or crack down on piracy.
"You can't just build a navy overnight, and it presupposes you have the facilities for training," he said. "In the meantime, there is a role for private security companies."
Contractors have had similar work in the region, including training the navy in Tanzania.
Whether Somalia hired companies was their decision, he said.
"The most important thing from our point of view is that they are properly regulated," he added.
One company, Saracen International, raised eyebrows when it began training forces in the Somali region of Puntland, where most pirates come from, due to its reported links to the former head of Blackwater, notorious for aggressive tactics in Iraq.
Hiring armed guards during journeys at sea has become more mainstream.
No ship carrying guards has yet been hijacked - after warning shots are fired, the pirates tend to back off and seek an easier target.
The UK, like other countries, reversed its position last year to endorse the practice. The UAE Shipping Association did the same last year, although a quarter of the industry body registered reservations.
Fears remain that guards with inadequate supervision might act recklessly, or prompt the pirates to act more violently themselves.
With hijackings becoming more difficult, some treat hostages more harshly, either out of frustration or to force a ransom payment.
Additional measures proposed to combat piracy - including a stronger pirate prosecution system and more development aid to Somalia - will be addressed at an international conference on Somalia in London next month.
The UAE, which held an international conference on piracy last April, will host another this year.