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Friday 18 February 2011
Author: Russell Group

The spectre of shipowners arming crews and enlisting specialist military to guard vessels as they navigate through the piracy infested waters off the Somali coast has increased dramatically this week.

Despite the rise in the level of attacks many underwriters have been loathed to give a green light to carryng armed personnel on vessels due to the liability issue and the dangers to hull if vessels get involved in a fire fight with the pirates.

However as the number of vessels and crews rise the industry has changed its mind and while not backing the armed escort have said they are happy to leave it to the owners themselves.

This has been evidenced this week as the International Union of Marine Insurance welcomed the announcement by the International Chamber of Shipping that it is now taking a more neutral position on the use of private armed security personnel on board ships to protect them from pirates.

IUMI, which announced in January that it was up to individual insurers whether to provide cover for ships and operators if private armed guards were employed on board.

ICS chairman Spyros Polemis said: “ICS has had to acknowledge that the decision to engage armed guards, whether military or private, should be made by the ship operator after due consideration of all risks, and subject to approval of the vessel’s flag state and insurers.”

Ole Wikborg, the Oslo-based president of IUMI, said: “We anticipate that more industry organisations will go down this route as the problem escalates. Frustrated by the weak resolve on the part of governments and international agencies to take effective action to stop the piracy juggernaut in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, the shipping industry is now reaching a point where it must take decisive – and, if necessary, deadly – action at sea to end this huge and dangerous business.

“At a time when the industry is struggling against weak freight markets and other adverse factors such as sanctions, it cannot afford to bleed more money from pirate activity, nor to see an increasing number of vessels and their cargoes captured. That goes for insurers too.

“Above all else, the fact that more than 700 seafarers are being held hostage, many for very long periods, and that attacks on ships are becoming more violent, must surely tip the scales in many cases where shipowners have to make painful decisions.”