Greek merchant ships will soon be able to carry armed guards to ward off pirate attacks, the Greek ministry of security has said. Greece is one of only a few countries with major shipping fleets to currently ban armed guards on its vessels, alongside countries such as Japan and the Netherlands.
“To improve safe sailing and crew safety aboard Greek ships crossing seas with increased piracy cases, an initiative has been taken to draft legislation for the embarkation of armed individuals on commercial ships,” the ministry said.
The legislation will allow shipowners to hire a minimum of six guards per ship on six month contracts that can be renewed, a ministry source told Agence France Presse.
Greek owned ships flying flags of convenience will also be allowed to carry armed guards. There are around 500 such vessels in operation today.
Although Greece was reluctant to put armed guards on its merchant vessels out of fear of escalating conflict with pirates, owners of ships from other countries are increasingly putting guards onboard as national navies struggle to combat Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean, a problem which is costing the world economy billions of dollars a year.
“This measure threatens to set off an arms race with the pirates,” said George Tsouris, the head secretary of the Greek captains’ union, who has himself fallen victim to pirates on his voyages. “It could also disrupt the chain of command on board,” he told AFP.
Britain and the United States last month reversed their opposition to having armed guards on merchant ships amid growing acceptance that weapons could be the best deterrent to Somali gangs who have been seizing ships and holding their crews and cargo to ransom for the last five years.
A spokeswoman for Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry) last month said that a licensing scheme would start soon, and that the weaponry allowed would be “appropriate and proportionate”.
Licences would restrict use of the weapons to off the Somali coast, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. Britain’s Transport Ministry said it expected around half the 200 British ships which sail through those waters to want to use armed guards.
At the end of last month Reuters said that security firms led by G4S are now providing armed guards to ships sailing pirate-infested Somali waters, with one start-up kitting out a gunboat to lead World War II style convoys, as shipowners step up their response to constant attacks.
G4S, which provides services ranging from airport and sports event security to prison management and cash transportation, has been in the vessel security market since 2003, but only recently switched to using armed guards.
G4S, currently serving two large Far Eastern shipowners, said it may also offer armed protection to shipping off the west coast of Africa and the Strait of Malacca, off Malaysia, both scenes of increasing pirate activity.
Other private security contractors offering protection against pirates include Typhon, a start-up chaired by Simon Murray, the ex-military chairman of commodities trading giant Glencore.
Typhon, backed by two major Asian shipping companies, plans to protect convoys of up to ten ships with an armed vessel complete with helicopter, chief executive and founder Anthony Sharpe told Reuters.
The International Maritime Organisation has recorded 352 piracy attacks between January and September this year. Somali pirates were holding as many as 16 vessels hostage as of November 7, including the Blida, a 20,586-tonne Algerian-flagged carrier with 27 crew members.