Mariners who bite the Somali bullet

Merchant ships are fending for themselves against Somali pirates, considering tactics such as barbed wire and sonic blasters, with international action so far failing to make a major impact.

Many observers agree that naval coalitions are but a band-aid stretched too thin over a huge area and that the key to eradicating piracy is addressing Somalia’s woes on land.

Yet more than 100 ships continue to sail through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden every day, hoping to dodge the growing ranks of ransom-hunting groups prowling the region.

The most radical way to avoid the Kalashnikov-toting squads on their nimble skiffs is to waive the more direct route of the Suez Canal and take a much longer journey off Southern Africa.

But few shipping companies have opted for the detour via the Cape of Good Hope, with the cost of extra fuel and delayed deliveries still exceeding insurance premiums on mariners deciding to bite the Somali bullet.

The commander of US naval forces in the area affected by Somali piracy, Vice Admiral William Gortney, hinted earlier this week that manning merchant vessels with armed guards could prove an effective solution.

But many observers have warned against the potential for violent escalation.

“I don’t agree with this solution ... You can’t just start wiping out pirates or suspected pirates because a few shots were fired in the air,” said Nick Davis, head of Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (APMSS).

Arming ship crews is counter to the industry’s traditions, and depending on a vessel’s port of destination and flag, firearms may be illegal on board.

Scramble to respond
Since Somali piracy surged in 2007 and severely disrupted one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes, the international community has scrambled to respond.

Vessels choosing to venture through risk zones in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean can seek armed escorts, either from one of the foreign navy vessels patrolling the area or from private outfits.

One company offers an armed patrol boat escort for the most sensitive portion of the journey through the Gulf of Aden at a cost of $45 000 dollars.

Scores of companies also provide unarmed guards for vessels, such as private security giant G4S, which currently assists around 40 transits per month.

Up to 10% of ships transiting through the Gulf of Aden however still fail to register their full details, prompting the industry and naval forces to renew calls for basic precautions to be applied.

The US navy recently encouraged crews to take simple “proactive measures” and cited examples of mariners fending off pirates by shooting warning flares, using water hoses or rigging the sides of the ship with barbed wire.

Some navies are equipped with Long Range Acoustic Devices, sonic blasters which can be plugged into MP3 players and whose latest models include laser dazzlers that temporarily blind attackers in addition to deafening them.

Watchdogs such as Ecoterra International have warned against the use of chemical or biological agents in current non-lethal weapons research.

One non-controversial system which was recently developed commercially as an anti-piracy solution is an entanglement device that Nick Davis’s APMSS has marketed as the “Counter Piracy Net”.

The system consists of floating nets which can be fitted on the sides and attached to the stern, preventing the pirates’ speedboats from getting close enough to the hull to throw their grappling hooks and boarding ladders.

Davis said at least one client had already successfully deployed the nets off the Yemeni port of Al Mukalla.

“The pirates’ outboard got entangled. It tossed the three pirates off the skiff, one of them was momentarily caught up in the net,” he said.

Shipping companies have also been encouraged to compartmentalise the command tower with armoured and welded structures.

“The initial approach was to prevent pirates from boarding, but a less costly temporary approach can be to delay the moment the pirates take control of the ship,” said Julien Sidiki Duval, an independent maritime security consultant based in France.

It takes around 15 minutes for a navy helicopter to be deployed and on average another 15 to 20 minutes for it to reach a ship in distress.—Sapa-AFP

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