x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pirate shot dead in attack on UAE ship

For the first time, a hijacker is killed by private security guards hired to protect merchant vessels in the world's most dangerous waters.

The MV Almezaan is Panamanian flagged but owned by Dubai-based Biyat International.
The MV Almezaan is Panamanian flagged but owned by Dubai-based Biyat International.

Private security guards on board a UAE-owned cargo ship shot dead a pirate attempting to hijack the vessel off the coast of Somalia. The incident is the first in which a hijacker has been killed by private contractors being used increasingly by shipping companies to protect their vessels in pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa.

The "armed private vessel protection detachment" on board the MV Almezaan returned fire when three pirate boats attacked the ship early Tuesday morning, according to the European Naval Force (EU Navfor), which responded to a distress call. The Spanish frigate ESPS Navarra rushed to the scene to help fight off two skiffs and a "mother ship" that held a total of seven pirates. One pirate was found dead in one of the skiffs.

"In a very short space of time the Navarra was on the scene and they had rounded up the pirates," said Cmdr John Harbour, a spokesman for Navfor. "There was evidence of a firefight and the skiffs were riddled with bullet holes." The six remaining pirates were detained by the ESPS Navarra and the mother ship was destroyed. Navfor said the pirate who died had "small-calibre gunshot wounds". Cmdr Habour hopes those captured will be prosecuted.

"We are doing an investigation at the moment and gathering evidence," he said. "Then they could face trial in either the country that caught them or one of the nations in the region." There is no other recent incident of a pirate being shot dead by a private contractor in an attack. Pirate skiffs usually retreat when fired upon, but after the Almezaan's guards repelled the first attempt the pirates pursued the ship and attacked it again. "This pirate group was particularly determined," said Cmdr Harbour.

The Almezaan is registered in Panama but owned by Dubai-based Biyat International. It is the third time it has been attacked by pirates. The prior incident was last November. On Tuesday the ship was en route to Mogadishu when it was attacked about 100km south of Haradere, near the coast. Her most recent port of call is not known, but she left Ajman in November. Pirates are increasingly widening their net as the Gulf of Aden is patrolled by maritime security vessels.

A Turkish ship was hijacked in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday, closer to India than Somalia and 400 nautical miles outside Navfor's patrols. On the same day a Bermuda-flagged vessel was taken 120 nautical miles off Oman. "They've been pushed out of their favourite hunting grounds," said Cmdr Habour. "They might be loitering for several days, be running out of fuel and fresh water and be forced to attack. Whether the boat is armed or not they aren't going to care. They'll be desperate."

The Almezaan incident has increased fears of escalating violence in the fight against piracy. The International Maritime Organisation is among groups that have raised concerns over the growing use of private security contractors. "The more weapons you have on board merchant vessels the higher the risk that violence at sea increases," said Peter Lehr, a piracy expert from St Andrew's University in Scotland.

"People will die - innocent people, innocent fishermen, pirates and seafarers." Dr Lehr said while many firms providing maritime security are highly professional, some shipping companies go for cheaper options because they are under financial pressure as the industry struggles. "There are very well-managed teams that know how to react under fire and aren't that trigger happy, but they come at a certain cost," Dr Lehr said, adding that the "rock bottom" option have very little training and no clear rules of engagement.

Dr Lehr recommends evasive manoeuvring and travelling at high speeds through piracy-prone areas rather than using armed security. However, Theodore Karasik, the head of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, described armed security guards on merchant ships as a "necessary evil" and said if pirates know there are armed guards on board, that knowledge acts as a deterrent.

Tuesday's incident also raises questions over who will hold private security firms responsible if there is found to be wrongdoing. "If it's Somali waters, Somalia is a failed state, so they can't be tried there," Dr Lehr said. "If it's international waters then it should be the ship's flag's state, which in this case is Panama, but there are a whole raft of problems."
lmorris@thenational.ae