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Tue 11 Oct 2011 04:31 PM

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Italy ropes in military to guard ships against pirates

Move marks escalation in efforts to combat threat of Somali marine pirates

Italy ropes in military to guard ships against pirates
The Oman coast has been the site of a number of pirate attacks

Italy is to station
military forces on its merchant vessels to guard against attacks by Somali
pirates, shipping sources said on Tuesday, the day after another of its ships
was attacked off the anarchic east African country.

Many ships already
carry private security contractors to try to prevent hijacks, but deployment of
military forces on merchant vessels would mark a clear escalation in measures
to combat piracy, which costs the world economy billions of dollars each year.

The sources said
Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa would sign an agreement later on Tuesday with
the confederation of Italian ship owners to put military guards on board
vessels in the huge area of the Indian Ocean at risk from Somali pirates, who
have hijacked several Italian ships.

The Montecristo, an
Italian cargo ship, was attacked by five men in a small boat off the coast of
Somalia on Monday, its owner the D'Alesio Group said. A pirate said by phone
that it was under their control. The ship had 23 crew from Italy, India and
Ukraine.

Somali pirates,
operating from the shores of the lawless state in the Horn of Africa, have
raked in millions of dollars a year in ransoms from scores of hijacked ships
from around the world, including oil super tankers.

Last month the
shipping industry called on the United Nations to create an armed military
force to be deployed on vessels to counter the escalating menace from armed
seaborne gangs.

While there has been
a growing acceptance of using armed security guards, sovereign military forces
are preferred by the shipping industry because they have clearer rules of
engagement and the reduced risk of legal issues in the event of fatalities.

Better armed and
increasingly violent pirate gangs are set to ramp up attacks in the coming
weeks in the Indian Ocean as the monsoon ends.

Around 17 ships are
currently being held by the pirates who can operate hundreds of miles from the
Somali coast.

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Negotiations often
take many months before the ships and crews are released for ransom. The
Socotra 1, a Yemeni-owned ship, was seized on Christmas Day 2009 and is still
being held.

A spokesman for the
D'Alesio group said on Tuesday there had been no contact with the crew since
the apparent hijacking.

"What interests
us at the moment is to bring the members of the crew to safety," Nello
D'Alesio, the group's Vice President, said in a statement on Monday night.

The ship left
Liverpool on Sept. 20 heading for Vietnam, and passed through the Suez canal at
the beginning of October. It was escorted by a Japanese warship - part of an
international anti-piracy force in the area - as it crossed the Gulf of Aden.

While naval patrols,
including vessels from the European Union, the United States and other nations
such as South Korea, Iran and Turkey, have curbed the number of attacks in the
Gulf of Aden, piracy in the Indian Ocean has continued to rise due to the vast
tracts of water involved, which represent a huge logistical challenge for
foreign navies.

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