Private fleet to target pirates

INSURERS in London are setting up a private fleet of armed patrol boats to stamp out Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, but a US military commander has warned there is no naval solution to the problem.

Admiral Robert Willard, head of the 300,000-troop US Pacific Command, said yesterday the Somali pirates were skirting international pressure in the Gulf of Aden by moving deeper into Asian waters, and that the only fix would be to restore stability in the African nation.

He voiced exasperation at years of naval efforts to stem the flow of pirates from Somalia, which has been effectively without a central government for two decades.

“It’s remarkable that 28 nations combining their maritime forces together in the Gulf of Aden have not been able to defeat this challenge,” Admiral Willard told the Asia Society on a visit to Washington. He said the pirates were becoming a menace in southern India and as far away as the South China Sea.

Admiral Willard said joint action by Southeast Asian nations had all but eliminated the piracy that once plagued the Malacca Strait – a vital route for the oil that powers Asia’s largest economies – but the Somalian problem could be solved only in Somalia. “I don’t think you’re ever going to defeat this threat at the far extremes of their operations on the sea lanes,” he said. “Rather, you have to go to the centres of gravity – the source on land in the Horn of Africa – and put a stop to it there.”

Donna Hopkins, the senior US State Department official on counter-piracy, agrees: “The problem is not going to go away until Somalia is fixed.

“It is an artefact of an ungoverned space with a long coastline in a region of fragile governments that’s located on a critical trade route, through which 40 per cent of the world’s energy passes,” she said. “So it’s a perfect storm.”

However, insurers are weary of making massive payout and are taking the naval solution into their own hands – with the support of shipowners, freight operators, governments and navies. Leading figures in the London insurance industry have been working for two years on the Convoy Escort Program, which aims to provide protection for tankers and reduce the cost of insuring shipping operations. Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer of the Baltic and International Maritime Council, said he would brief US politicians in Washington next week.

One of the key architects of the program is Sean Woollerson, a partner in the marine, oil and gas division at Jardine Lloyd Thompson, a leading Lloyd’s broker for companies seeking insurance protection, particularly for war risks and kidnap and ransom.

“It has taken an extraordinary amount of hard work and effort over the past two years, but we hope we’re about 70 per cent of the way there,” Mr Woollerson said yesterday.

Under the plan, a non-profit association involving private and public sector members would be set up. It would control a fleet of 18 vessels, each with a fixed gun position and an armed crew authorised to engage pirates in battle.

Each vessel would carry eight armed security personnel and four additional crew, as well as inflatable speedboats known as “Ribs” that could be dispatched into combat if the tankers they were protecting came under attack. Although managed separately, the fleet would be under the operational control of the relevant national navy and the crew would have to conform to international rules on combat and engagement.

The pirates seem to be growing ever better organised and more capable. So-called mother ships are now venturing more than 1600km out to sea armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and grappling hooks.

Sustaining themselves for weeks while they search for vulnerable vessels, the pirates communicate with commanders onshore via satellite phone, receiving information from networks of contacts watching the narrow shipping lane through the Gulf of Aden.

US officials do not deny that information on shipping movements may also be leaking from international commercial centres such as Lloyd’s of London and the Baltic Exchange.

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