Ships sailing under a British flag will be able to carry armed guards to protect them from pirates, the prime minister has announced.
David Cameron says he wants to combat the risks to shipping off the coast of Somalia, where 49 of the world’s 53 hijackings last year took place.
No ship carrying armed security has yet been hijacked, the government claims.
Up to 200 vessels flying the red ensign – the British merchant navy flag – regularly sail close to Somalia.
Officials estimate that about 100 of those would immediately apply for permission to have armed guards.
It is thought many British-registered ships already carry armed guards, taking advantage of a grey area in the law.
Allowing ships to carry armed guards may fall foul of laws in other countries, though. Egypt recently announced that armed guards would not be permitted on ships sailing through the Suez canal.
Shoot to kill?
Mr Cameron said he wanted to legalise armed guards after talks in Australia with Commonwealth leaders from the region over the escalating problem faced in waters off their shores.
But armed guards would only be permitted while passing through dangerous waters, such as the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Asked if he was comfortable with giving private security operatives the right to “shoot to kill” if necessary, Mr Cameron told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “We have to make choices.
“Frankly, the extent of the hijack and ransom of ships round the Horn of Africa 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 is a complete insult and the rest of the world needs to come together with much more vigour.”
Peter Cook, director of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (Sami), said: “We welcome this carefully considered change of policy and we will continue with our accreditation programme to ensure that maritime security guards are of the highest standards.”
He said the vast majority of ships passing through the Gulf of Aden are from “flag states” such as Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas, many of which already allow armed guards.
But Commodore Angus Menzies, from the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, said: “It shifts the problem elsewhere. The pirates just move further and further away as they’re doing already across the Indian Ocean as navy vessels and security vessels get better at stopping the pirates – they just go somewhere else.”
He said he was worried armed guards might enrage pirates who might act more violently towards crews if they overpowered the guards.
Ex Navy and Marines
Mr Cook said many armed guards were former Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel, and he added: “With the current redundancies it has provided them with an ideal place to go because their levels of professionalism are very high and they are doing something very worthwhile with their skills rather than selling the Big Issue.”
Transport Secretary Justine Greening said: “Piracy is a very serious problem and it’s sensible to allow ships to take the appropriate measures to protect their crew and cargo. The use of armed security guards can have a significant impact.
“The UK will allow the use of private armed security guards on our ships in exceptional circumstances and where it is lawful to do so.”
Under the plans the home secretary will be given the power to license armed guards for ships.
Mr Cook said most armed guards would be using high velocity rifles, which were used to “deter pirates” from attempting to board a ship
He confirmed that no vessel with armed guards had been taken over by pirates, and said in several cases guards had fired shots at pirates.
France and Spain provide so-called military vessel protection detachments, while Italy is planning a similar measure.
In July the Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham said limited military resources meant it was not possible to free up Royal Marines for a ship protection role.
Other counter-piracy measures being taken include offering support from Treasury officials to Kenya to help its officials track down pirates’ assets.
Mr Cameron also said help could be given to countries such as the Seychelles and Mauritius who were acting to bring pirates to court and imprison them.
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