x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rising concerns over piracy

As piracy on the high seas increasingly becomes more vicious, shipping companies are having to go to extreme lengths to protect crew and cargo.

Somali pirates reaped an estimated US$85 million (Dh312m) from ransoms last year, and ships are increasingly using high-speed transits and armed guards to prevent seizures.

Shipping officials say pirates also increased their brutality towards hostages in the past six months in an effort to pressure ship owners to settle faster and for higher amounts.

The rising concerns brought together government and industry professionals at a high-profile anti-piracy conference in Dubai this week.

"Ship owners clearly see maritime piracy as the number one challenge and concern," said Peter Swift, the chairman of the steering group of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme.

"We would all like to see it eradicated. We also know it is not going to go away overnight," said Mr Swift, who is also a former head of Intertanko, an association for the oil tanker industry .

The scourge of piracy, facilitated by the absence of a functioning central government in Somalia since 1991, has cost the global economy $7 billion, said Mohammed Adbulahi Omar Asharq, the foreign minister of the transitional federal government of Somalia. The average ransom is $4m, and ransoms of as much as $9.5m have been reported.

Armed guards are being used on some ships transiting the high-risk Gulf of Aden, which is used by 30,000 cargo vessels each year. Attacks have even been recorded 1,500km off the coast of Somalia.

Peter Ford, the chief executive of the Omani port of Salalah, estimated there were up to 90 ferry trips transporting guards from the port out to cargo vessels each month.

"The statistics will show that we have not had a ship hijacked with armed guards on board, but if that changed and there was a shoot-out, it could escalate," Mr Swift said.

A focus on the plight of hostages has arisen as the conditions of their confinement has worsened. Pirates have resorted to mock executions and physical torture to pressure hostage negotiators, Mr Swift said.

The most vulnerable ships are often vessels carrying chemicals, oil and other bulk goods because they tend to be slow and ride low in the water, making it easier for pirates to board. By contrast, container-carrying vessels have fared better with their ability to sail as fast as 25 knots.

Last month, a vessel from the United Arab Shipping Company (UASC) carrying 7,000 containers from Asia to Europe was pursued by pirate ships more than 600km off the Somali coast. The ship outran the pirates, said Jorn Hinge, the president and chief executive of UASC.

"Pirates have become more and more active," he said. Complicating matters was that "whenever multinational forces catch pirates, in many cases they take their weapons and boats but then put them back on shore in Somalia because they do not know what to do with them."

igale@thenational.ae