Shipowners turn to AK-47s to deter sea pirates

Armed guards on the frontline of industry's billion-dollar fight against Somalian pirates
Average ransom payments jumped to $5.4m last year, from $150,000 in 2005
By Bloomberg
Tue 17 May 2011 06:02 PM

Shipping companies are turning to guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles to protect vessels from pirates, a trade group for security professionals said, after record numbers of attacks last year added $2.4bn to costs.

About 20 percent of ships operating in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden will use armed guards within the next 18 months, up from 12 percent now, Peter Cook, a spokesman for the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, said in London after a presentation by the newly created group Tuesday.

Average ransom payments jumped to $5.4m last year, from $150,000 in 2005, Louisville, Colorado-based One Earth Future Foundation estimated in January.

Attacks off Somalia were also at an all-time high, with 49 vessels and 1,016 crew members hijacked, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

“There is a wish by some shipowners to have armed guards on board and you can’t dispute the fact they are successful,” said Andrew Bardot, secretary and executive officer of the International Group of P&I Clubs, which insures 90 percent of the world fleet against liability claims. There have been no successful hijackings on ships with armed guards, he said.

Most companies have three to five guards on their payroll and hire extra staff on a freelance basis, Cook said, adding shipowners pay about $100m a year for the services. The guards are most likely to carry AK-47s, he said.

There have been 145 attacks and 22 ships hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean so far this year, according to the International Maritime Organization, the shipping division of the United Nations.

Somali pirates added at least $2.4bn to transportation costs in 2010 as ships were diverted to avoid attacks off east Africa, said One Earth, a non-profit group.

The IMO, which had advised shipowners not to hire armed guards, will probably approve vetting procedures for security companies this week, paving the way for their increased use, Cook said, adding that his group represents about one-fifth of the private contractors supplying such professionals.

“The maritime security industry wants to be regulated,” he said. The creation of a trade group for companies seeking to protect shipping will allow owners to distinguish “good maritime companies” from “entrepreneurs.”

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