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Govt may allow armed guards on merchant ships

Govt may allow armed guards on merchant ships

New Delhi: The government is likely to allow armed guards on merchant ships to counter pirates, but bigger measures may be needed as Somali pirates have come right into India’s neighbourhood.

“Discussions are taking place in the (shipping) ministry and I believe it is going to be a week or 10 days when it will take a decision," said Sunil Thapar, director, bulk carrier and tanker division, Shipping Corp. of India Ltd (SCI). “The ministry is veering towards placing armed guards on board."

The ministries of home affairs and defence will have to clear the move before it is implemented, Thapar added.

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Pirates of the Somali cost have escalated attacks on merchant ships and expanded their turf to cover the entire Indian Ocean from the Gulf of Aden. There were 219 attacks in 2010 in which 49 vessels were hijacked and 1,016 crew members taken hostage, data from the International Maritime Bureau show.

Thapar said SCI, that ships into India crude oil and fertilizers from the Persian Gulf and phosphoric acid from Morocco, besides taking Korean steel through the Persian Gulf, was the victim of three shooting incidents last year.

But will a few armed guards be able to ward off the growing menace?

An expert said bigger efforts at an international scale were needed. A “few armed guards can help, but it is not quite sufficient. From each ransom, the pirates get so much money, they buy more modern weapons," said Indrajeet Singh, a former maritime training adviser at the United Nations.

“There has to be a bigger coordination between affected countries and their navies should form a common pool to guard and escort merchant ships," said Singh, who was also the captain of merchant navy’s training ships. “There should be a routing plan for all merchant ships with the help of the navies."

Shipping company officials said sailing in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean would be as expensive as before with insurance premiums unlikely to come down.

“We have to pay a kidnap and ransom premium, a war premium, and on top of that, we have to reroute our ships if a mother ship is spotted which adds to expenses," said Amit Oza of Jaldhi Overseas Pte Ltd, a chartering firm.

Oza said the premiums amounted to $50,000-60,000 per trip, which had doubled from last year.

Armed guards may make the crew more secure, though.

“At times crew refuse to operate in this region," said Hanoz Mistri, vice-president at Five Stars Bulk Carriers Pvt. Ltd. “Most of the seafarers are on contract. I have to struggle to find a replacement in the last minute."

Mistri said he would welcome any policy to have armed guards, but there was also a worry in case there are accidents.

“What happens if a suspected pirate is shot at? Would there be human rights issues? What if I accidentally shoot at a fishing vessel?" he said. “Arming ships is a good idea, but I wouldn’t want to engage in a confrontation."

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