x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Shipowners arm themselves to ward off pirates

Major shipping and oil companies are arming staff and employing professional security firms to combat Somali piracy.

The UK Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland leaves Mombasa to escort food aid to Somalia.
The UK Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland leaves Mombasa to escort food aid to Somalia.

Major shipping and oil companies are arming staff and employing professional security firms to combat Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Despite EU and Nato patrols, several firms are seeking protection after more than 100 raids this year, including the capture of the Saudi Arabian tanker the Sirius Star. The plans were discussed yesterday at the Maritime Piracy Seminar at the Seatrade Exhibition in Dubai. Prior to the meeting, Mohammad Souri, the chairman of the National Iranian Tanker Company, said the presence of professional, armed security on board his vessels was key to combating the piracy threat. He said that five of his ships had been pursued by pirates.

"The industry is grateful for the support the EU has offered. If they can provide sufficient protection then the situation will be solved but we are negotiating terms to provide our own security on board. "We have placed two of our ships at either end of the Gulf, at Djibouti and Salalah, to protect our ships. The intention is that armed crews from these base ships will transfer to ships making the passage to protect them from pirates. The teams will also train the crew in anti-piracy measures."

Private security firms in Britain have offered professional teams armed with guns, flares and tear gas. Saleh al Shamekh, the president of the oil and gas section of the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia, said his organisation was investigating all available options to counter the threat of piracy. "Several of our ships have come under attack off the Somali coast. In one case a vessel only escaped with the aid of an Indian navy warship. We have told our captains to increase speeds and stay further away from the coast.

"Increasingly we are having to divert ships around the Cape of Good Hope but this is a more expensive, much longer journey. We need to offer our crews protection." Jørn Hinge, the chief operating officer of the United Arab Shipping Company, the largest ocean carrier of container cargo in the Middle East, said the Gulf of Aden was volatile and the odds remained in the pirates' favour. "There is total lawlessness in Somalia. The chances of pirates getting caught are small and the rewards of ransoms are huge so the threat is not going to disappear overnight. Two of our container ships have been attacked," Mr Hinge said.

"We have ordered our captains not to listen to any threats or try to remonstrate with the pirates. They just need to try to outrun them because if they get captured they will be in even more danger. "The pirates have access to sophisticated weapons. One of our tankers was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade." However, Peter Swift, the managing director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, said the carrying of arms was generally prohibited by international and national laws.

International shipping laws prevented the possession of handguns on deck and many ports did not allow entry to vessels with weapons on board. "The community is strongly against private militias as it's likely to promote more violence." The carrying of arms was also likely to invalidate most insurance policies, he said. Mr Swift said his association believed existing piracy prevention forces in the region - including Nato, Indian, Russian and EU forces - would be more effective if co-ordinated from a single centralised command.

More than 85,000 vessels pass through the Gulf of Aden every year and a total of 16 vessels have been captured for ransom by pirates. In response to the capture of the Sirius Star, a supertanker carrying 90 million gallons of oil, the EU deployed a force of six warships supported by three aircraft to protect merchant vessels. The UK, France, Germany, Greece and Spain have provided vessels. In addition the UN has designated a shipping channel running close to the Yemen coast to reduce the risk of shipping being attacked by pirates.

In June the UN Security Council passed a resolution which for the first time allowed foreign navies to pursue fleeing pirates into Somali waters. Earlier, international law prevented naval forces from venturing closer than 320km offshore. However, these measures have failed to curtail piracy and in recent months the number of attacks has increased dramatically. The area is now the world's most dangerous shipping lane, replacing the Straits of Malacca, according to the International Maritime Bureau. tbrooks@thenational.ae