International shipping companies have welcomed the deployment of additional warships in the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia, where dozens of commercial and private vessels have been attacked this year. Concerned ship owners are also reportedly hiring private security firms to escort their vessels. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, having armed guards on board ships to fight piracy remains a controversial issue.
Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for states to deploy naval vessels and military aircraft to fight out-of-control piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Several NATO members answered the call, dispatching frigates and destroyers to the region as part of a special anti-piracy task force focused on escorting World Food Program ships delivering aid to Somalia.
|An officer of a U.S. Navy guided- missile cruiser monitoring the hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, 30, Sept. 2008|
The NATO group joins allied naval vessels from the Djibouti-based Combined Task Force 150, which recently created a maritime security patrol area in the Gulf of Aden to provide a safe shipping lane for about 200 vessels traveling through it every day.
Chris Trelawny at the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency that oversees maritime security, said the industry is relieved to know that a multi-national military effort is under way to try to tackle the piracy problem in the Horn of African region.
"We would very much expect the presence of NATO and other warships will actively prevent further attacks from occurring," he said. "But really we see the navies there as a stop-gap measure, if you like, keeping a lid on it until such time as the political situation can be sorted out by wider action through the United Nations and the African Union. "
Late last month, the hijacking of a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks and heavy weapons off the eastern coast of Somalia made global headlines after pirates demanded an unprecedented $20 million ransom for the release of the ship and its crew.
The director of the International Maritime Bureau in London, Pottengal Mukundan, says the capture of MV Faina demonstrated that Somali pirates now have the resources, the experience, and the weapons they need to carry out sophisticated hijackings.
|In this photo provided by the US Navy, pirates leave the Ukrainian merchant vessel MV Faina for Somalia's shore, while under observation by a US Navy ship, 08 Oct 2008|
Mukundan said in the past two months, pirates have attacked some of the biggest ships plying the high seas, including supertankers carrying oil and gas.
He added, "They certainly seem to be going for large vessels. They think they may get higher ransoms as a result, and if they do take a vessel carrying oil or chemical cargo, then there is always a risk that the cargo may not be looked after, which may cause an accident with all the environmental consequences."
About 30 ships have been captured this year, mostly in the Gulf of Aden, which provides the shortest maritime route from the Far East to Europe and is vital to global commerce. Pirates have released about 20 vessels after the payment of ransoms that have averaged one- to $2 million per ship.
Attacks are usually conducted from several small speedboats, each carrying three-to-five pirates, armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The latest maritime report says the number of speedboats involved in each incident is increasing, as are the number of so-called mother ships, which act as launching pads for the attacks.
The deteriorating security situation in the region has opened a window of opportunity for private security firms to offer anti-piracy services to ship owners.
Blackwater, a U.S.-based firm whose security guards were accused of killing 17 civilians last year during a shoot-out in Iraq, announced that it has sent a private military ship to the Gulf of Aden this week to assist the commercial shipping industry.
|An Iraqi policeman inspects a car destroyed September 16, 2007 by a Blackwater security detail in Baghdad, (file)|
John Harris, who heads a company called HollowPoint Protective Services in the United States, said ship owners are seeking help from private security firms.
A few weeks ago, the American commander of the Combined Maritime Forces and his British deputy suggested shippers consider hiring private armed security escorts because the coalition lacked the resources to give round-the-clock protection to all merchant vessels in the region.
Harris said, "All these different governments putting their ships in there is really a good thing. But what my company can do - we put people who specialize in this field aboard these vessels and give them one-on-one protection as they go through hostile waters. We only respond to attacks on vessels we protect."
But Pottengal Mukundan at the International Maritime Bureau said there are serious legal issues to consider if armed guards are to be put on board commercial ships.
"Flagged states do not usually permit armed guards on their merchant vessels and also the fact that these vessels may be going through coastal waters of nations whose own laws may prohibit unlicensed armed guards operating. And all this could cause complications, particularly if there is death or injury. This is exactly why these legal issues need to be resolved before going down this path."
Private security firms argue that they are filling a security gap that foreign navies are unable to address. The United Nations has yet to give foreign navies guidelines on what they can and cannot do to stop acts of piracy and what to do with pirates if they are caught.
Recently, the Danish navy seized 10 suspected pirates, but had to set them free on Somali soil because the legal conditions surrounding their detention were not clear.
The Marine Director for the London-based International Chamber of Shipping, Peter Hinchliffe, said despite the limitations foreign navies face, ship owners should not hire private guards.
"Companies that are in the business of providing private security, of course, one would expect to offer those services. That is fine," he said. "But I think what navies are forgetting, and perhaps governments are forgetting as well, is that we are not talking about the protection of an individual ship in a piece of water. What we are talking about is the fundamental obligation of nations to provide safe passage for world trade. So, therefore, it is totally unsatisfactory for naval authorities to try to devolve that responsibility to innocent merchant ships."
Hinchliffe said he and many others in the industry believe that the presence of more warships, a clear set of legal rules, and more aggressive rules of engagement to deal with pirates will reduce the number of attacks and discourage piracy in the future.