- 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.”

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