Ship guards, navy routes can beat pirates – expert

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A couple of sharpshooters in the stern and a captain under orders to plough ahead rather than surrender the helm are inexpensive and effective precautions against piracy, says a top Israeli maritime security expert.

A sharp increase in the number of pirate seizures off the Somali coast so far this year has sent shipping firms scrambling for solutions, although some officials have cautioned against an armed response, Reuters adds.

Igal Hasson, a former navy commando turned consultant, argues for a comprehensive and common-sense approach.

“There are two levels that need to be dealt with at the same time — the level of international coordination, and the level of simple counter-measures installed on each individual vessel as a matter of policy,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Hasson said major maritime powers should direct their naval ships to pirate-rife areas, to deter or fend off attacks. To that end, he said, “command and control” centres must be set up to monitor mayday calls and coordinate quick rescue missions.

But nothing can replace the right response by a ship’s crew when first faced with a hostile boarding attempt, and Hasson said that comes down to being just as aggressive as the pirates.
“Your average cargo vessel has very high sides, and can only be accessed at the stern. That’s a small area that can be protected by as few as two to four guards, provided they’re trained and armed with scope-mounted assault rifles,” he said.

On the high seas, Hasson said, the snipers would be legally entitled to shoot to kill as soon as the “means and motivation” of the pirates were established — for example, if they were armed or bearing down on the ship in a threatening manner.

An Italian cruise liner, the MSC Melody, beat off pirates near the Seychelles last month, with the captain crediting security staff who fired their pistols at the attackers.

But Hasson was circumspect about the usefulness of handguns, saying their limited range — a few dozen metres (yards) — would give pirates too much leeway.

His suggestions contrast with the views of some maritime organisations, which have recommend shippers avoid deploying armed guards on merchant vessels and urged them to leave that role to foreign navies.

Pottengal Mukundan, director of London-based watchdog the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), said there was a risk of escalation.
“If merchant vessels are armed there may also be an increased risk of violence against the crew if the pirates are able to get on board,” he said.

Concern has also been voiced at what might happen to the approximately 300 sailors being held hostage by Somali pirates from earlier attacks. So far, the captive crews have generally been well treated because they can be exchanged for ransom.

The IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre says global pirate attacks almost doubled in the first three months of this year. Of the 102 reported pirate attacks worldwide in that period, 61 took place in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia.

Hasson’s company, Defender Security Group, is endorsed by the Israeli government.

Proficient ship guards would charge $400 to $500 a day each, Hasson said, but costs could be kept down by having them join the voyage only when the vessel enters a risky route: “Off Somalia, that means a weeklong passage at most.”

While many ports would not be happy at the prospect of accommodating a ship bearing high-powered firearms, Hasson said this could be circumvented by locking up the guns and having the harbourmaster seal the safe for the duration of the stay.

As for non-lethal equipment, he recommends ships install an electrified fence for the stern and buy night-vision surveillance kit for the guards — a package costing $10,000.

Hasson warned ship-owners against ordering captains to submit to pirates in order to minimize violence.

The skipper of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship, was taken hostage last month after going below with his crew as instructed, according to news reports. He was freed when US commandos killed his captors following a standoff.



Hasson said a ship travelling at 30 knots, and tacking hard every few minutes, has a good chance of shaking off the underfueled fishing boats favoured by Somali pirates.
“It comes down to a policy decision, to the firm deciding that its property or personnel are worth fighting for,” he said.
“Yes, casualties have been low so far, but given that some navies are now pushing back, the pirates could soon decide not to be so careful about taking prisoners.”