- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

LONDON | The piracy-plagued shipping industry is resisting calls to deploy armed guards on cargo ships, fearing it will not stop pirate attacks and could make shipping lanes off Somalia’s coast even more dangerous.

Since the April 8 attack on the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Alabama, Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, and several private security specialists have suggested arming crews or hiring private security firms to bolster ship defenses.

With Somali pirates seemingly undeterred by the deaths or arrests of several of their members in recent days, some shipping companies “are definitely considering” putting armed guards aboard, said Andrew Linington, head of communications at the seafarers union Nautilus in London.

But Simon Bennett, secretary of the International Chamber of Shipping, told The Washington Times that the “clear consensus view within the shipping industry is that it is not appropriate for the seafarers to be armed, simply because we believe that this will escalate the situation. The only people that should be equipped with arms are the military professionals that are operating in the region.”

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Even the professionals have been slow, in some cases, to take firm action against the pirates, whose attacks have continued unabated since U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips on April 12. The only surviving pirate from the incident was being flown to New York for a court appearance scheduled for Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

A seven-hour chase Sunday by a U.S. and Canadian warship helped thwart an attack on a Norwegian oil tanker, but the Canadians released the seven pirates they captured.

“Canada’s mandate is not to normally take detainees in this mission,” Michael McWhinnie, a spokesman for the Canadian ship Winnipeg, told the AP.

In London, Mr. Linington said the shipping companies fear that weaponizing commercial ships would “create more problems than it would solve” and that the companies could become embroiled in an “arms race” with the pirates.

It also could draw shippers into the web of complex legal issues, as the incident Sunday illustrated, in terms of what to do with captured pirates and how to navigate firearms regulations that differ from port to port.

Another concern is the danger of firing on the wrong target.

“In this area, there are many ordinary fishing boats who are just trying to protect their nets from passing cargo ships,” said Noel Choong, director of the International Maritime Bureaus piracy-reporting center in Malaysia. “They pretend to be pirates to ward off the ships from damaging their nets. If crews shoot at them, they could end up killing the wrong people.”

The flammable nature of certain cargo also makes a firefight an unattractive proposition.

Shipping-industry heavyweights are reluctant to say whether hiring private security is under discussion.

After the release of Mr. Phillips, the A.P. Moller-Maersk Group released a statement saying it would “review its policies and procedures for sailing off the coast of Somalia and take appropriate action.”

The company declined to elaborate, but an article in the March issue of its staff magazine said the presence of armed security guards on tankers would raise safety issues and that its policy is not to have private security on board.

Ship operators should boost crew numbers rather than recruiting security personnel, Mr. Linington said.

“Vigilance is key. If the pirates know the ship has spotted them and the ship has performed early evasive maneuvers, the chances of pirates launching a successful attack are reduced dramatically,” he said.

“One of the main problems is that crew members are told to carry out extra patrols and watches, but the number of crew on board is not increased to deal with these additional duties,” he said. “Instead, they are dumped onto people that are already overworked and suffering from fatigue.”

Economic pressures make it unlikely that crews will be expanded.

“We have seen a marked reluctance among ship owners in the current economic climate to spend any extra money, be it on security guards or extra crew, which is why they have been very happy to see all the naval forces deployed,” Mr. Linington said.

The cost of plying the treacherous route through the Gulf of Aden, which links the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, has soared. Beyond the potential need to come up with ransom payments, insurance premiums have increased tenfold, according to global risk insurance broker Aon.

But the alternatives can be even more expensive.

A liner traveling from Europe to the Middle East via the Cape of Good Hope would incur an additional $89 million in annual fuel and charter expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Temptations to take the longer route also have diminished as pirates extend their range. In response to international naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden, the pirates are targeting ships up to 600 miles from shore farther south, ensnaring several vessels between Kenya and the Seychelles.

The gangs are using “mother ships” from which they hunt cargo ships and then dispatch skiffs to intercept their targets.

For now, most shipping companies seem resigned to traverse pirate-riddled waters.

Aon says it has seen a sharp rise in inquiries about kidnap and ransom insurance, suggesting that shipping companies will be more prepared to pay ransoms if their losses are covered.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week announced new steps to combat piracy, including sending an envoy to a Somali donors conference in Brussels this week and exploring ways to track and freeze pirate assets. She also pledged to press Somali authorities to take action against the pirates operating within their country.

But in the short term, the International Chamber of Shipping said the military should be responsible for clamping down on pirates’ mother ships.

“We are in touch with the military, and we still dont understand why there is such a problem,” said Mr. Bennett of the International Chamber of Shipping.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN recently that 16 countries have deployed naval ships to the region, but they cannot patrol “1.1 million square miles” with complete effectiveness.

Mr. Bennett said that was not a sufficient excuse. “With all that complicated satellite technology they have these days, we really think it should be possible to track these mother ships,” he said.

Others say military action needs to be taken to shore in lawless Somalia.

“We cannot see why … we cant deal with this problem at source and essentially prevent the pirates from going out to sea,” said Mr. Linington of the Nautilus seafarers union. “All the intelligence is there, in terms of how they operate and where they operate from, but tactically there seems to be an unwillingness to engage them in a proactive way, rather than a reactive way.”

The Obama administration may be reluctant to commit armed forces to land operations in Somalia after the disastrous battle of Mogadishu mission in 1993, when Somali militants brought down a U.S. helicopter and dragged the bodies of Americans through the streets. The U.S. military also is committed to ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Choong, of the piracy-control bureau, said African states such as Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar have not taken responsibility to push their coastal patrols into international waters.

“The U.N. and the international community have to find a way to solve the problem,” he said. “The youth in Somalia want to become pirates. They see the opportunity for a good life and to drive nice cars. Its a way out of poverty.”

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