Somali piracy: UK merchant vessels to be armed

Prime minister David Cameron has revealed plans for ships sailing under the British flag to be permitted to carry armed guards in a bid to protect them from piracy, particularly vessels sailing off the coast of Somalia.

Last year, 49 of the world’s 53 hijackings took place off the coast of lawless Somalia, with vital trade waterway the Gulf of Arden gaining the nickname of Pirate Alley due to the level of activity in the area.

Speaking to the BBC over the weekend, David Cameron said that he wants to put new rules in place that allow British flagged commercial ships to apply for a license to carry armed private security, as current legislation bans the use of weapons.

He said: “The evidence is that ships with armed guards don't get attacked, don't get taken for hostage or for ransom, and so we think this is a very important step forward.”

“The extent of the hijack and ransom of ships around the Horn of Africa I think is a complete stain on our world. The fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world and our trading system I think is a complete insult.”

In February of this year, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the principal international trade association for ship owners which represents around 80 per cent of the world merchant fleet, changed it’s stance on using armed guards to defend merchant ships against attacks by Somali pirates.

At the time ICS chairman Spyros M Polemis said the consensus view amongst shipping industry associations remains that, in normal circumstances, private armed guards “are not recommended”, however, in view of the current crisis in the Indian Ocean ship operators “must be able to retain all possible options available to deter attacks and defend their crews against piracy”. 

He said: “Many shipping companies have concluded that arming ships is a necessary alternative to avoiding the Indian Ocean completely, which would have a hugely damaging impact on the movement of world trade.

Re-iterating ICS’ stance in response to Cameron’s plan, secretary general Peter Hinchliffe, said that armed guards should not represent “a long-term solution”, but a “short-term palliative measure”.

It is understood the licenses will not apply across the globe and will only cover dangerous waters, such as the seas off East Africa's coast, parts of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.

However, the move may anger Egypt, which has only recently ruled that ships sailing through the Suez canal will not be allowed to do so with armed guards on board.

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