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Shippers fret over expected Somali piracy upsurge

* Monsoon to end soon, shippers braced for attacks

* Military guards on ships unlikely given tight resources

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON, Aug 5 (Reuters) – Pirates are likely to step up attacks on ships off Somalia’s coast in coming months as the end of the monsoon season brings better weather, naval and shipping officials say.

Deploying military personnel on vulnerable vessels may be the best response to pirates, who have collected millions of dollars in ransom for cargo ships and crews hijacked in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes, maritime officials say.

“We have got to the point where everyone is just resigned to more attacks,” a London-based shipbroker said. “It is getting tougher to find ship owners willing to travel there.”

Poorer weather has led to less attacks recently. But the Combined Maritime Forces anti-piracy naval coalition said it expected an increase in incidents when the southwest monsoons end in the coming weeks.

Foreign navies deployed off Somalia since the turn of the year to prevent attacks have been stretched over the vast expanses of water, leaving vessels open to attack.

Frustration has led some shipping companies to deploy private security teams on board their vessels. But maritime organisations have urged shippers to leave any armed role to foreign navies.

Shipping bodies have sought instead to deploy military forces on vulnerable vessels with low freeboard — the distance between a ship’s railings and the water — and low speed.

“The only thing that can be effective is to have military guards on board the ships,” said Spyros M. Polemis, chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

Polemis, whose association represents 75 percent of the global industry, said the job of the military teams would be to prevent pirates boarding vulnerable vessels.

“As we go further into the future and there are more and more hijackings, I think more governments are going to start thinking that maybe this is the right solution,” he said.

The number of attacks by Somali pirates in the first half of 2009 soared to 148 from 25 in the same period a year ago, data from watchdog the International Maritime Bureau showed.


Insurance and shipping costs have risen as Somali pirates use sophisticated communication systems and better weaponry.

Polemis said France was willing to provide military personnel and Germany was thinking about it.

A French defence ministry spokesman said France began deploying marines in late June and early July on its tuna ships off the Seychelles under an agreement with Orthongel, an association of French frozen tuna producers.

The mandate was for the fishing season which lasts about three to four months.

“It’s really a French initiative for the French ships,” the spokesman said, adding there were no plans to widen the mandate to other private vessels.

A German defence ministry spokesman said deploying German troops on board merchant vessels “is not a sensible suggestion”.

Kim Hall of the U.S. government-funded Center for Naval Analyses said it was unlikely to happen.

“I don’t think it is the best use of taxpayer money, no matter who the taxpayer is to use military personnel for that mission,” she said.

J. Peter Pham, an African security advisor to U.S. and European governments and private companies, said with global economic difficulties and tight defence budgets there were growing questions over using naval resources to tackle piracy.

“There is an increasing desire, perhaps not articulated publicly, of many navies wanting to pull out of this,” he said.

“They are looking for a graceful way out of this open ended commitment,” said Pham.

With no political solution in sight to Somali lawlessness, the shipping industry said it remained in the firing line.

“We have to have an effort which prevents hijackings altogether,” Polemis said.


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