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NAPLES, Italy — As the world struggles to stop piracy in the waters off the coast of Africa and the Middle East, several companies have stepped forward to provide armed escort boats for commercial ships.
Small, fast boats with a handful of armed mariners are an "emerging way to handle the [piracy] problem in a safe way," said Jim Jorrie, CEO of Espada Logistics and Security-MENA, a San Antonio-based company offering such services.
But shipping industry experts frown on the practice.
"It slightly smacks of vigilantism to me," said Tony Mason, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping and International Shipping Federation.
"It poses a lot of questions, like under what rules of engagement will they operate?" Mason asked. "We would not speak against [companies] that choose to embark security teams, but as an industry, we are opposed to private forces on ships. They are unregulated and present potential legal problems. We oppose private escort boats for the same reasons."
Legal issues could arise, he said, if anyone were killed during one of the escort boat’s operations.
"There are laws against a private individual killing a private individual, even if they are perceived to be pirates," Mason said. "You can’t go on the high seas, just like you can’t go on the streets of London, and shoot people likely to do harm to you."
Another company offering the services, Muse Professional Group Inc., headquartered in Ukraine, contracts out the services of the Yemeni coast guard to both provide merchant vessels escort as they transit the Gulf of Aden, and quell dissent among the industry leaders, said one of Muse’s owners, Charles Kuneff.
The Yemeni coast guard members are trained by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard and must abide by military rules of engagement, said Lt. Col. Bakill Hamzah, operations officer for the Aden District of the Yemeni coast guard, and manager of the country’s National Anti-Piracy Center.
"This is not a normal thing for us," he said of hiring out guardsmen to commercial companies, Hamzah said. "But it’s one of the solutions we see appropriate ... to counter the piracy problem in the area. It looks like a good solution."
Yemen trained 150 coast guard sailors last year to provide embarked and escort security teams to merchant ships, and plans to train another 150 this year, he said.
Muse’s practice of relying on a military force rather than private security does allay some of the industry’s concerns, Mason said.
Muse charges private companies $25,000 for escort through the Gulf of Aden.
The Texas-based Espada recently bought more small boats to expand its services, and charges $54,000 for a three-day escort through the Gulf of Aden, and $74,000 for wider-ranging, four-day protection that covers East Africa and the Horn of Africa down to the Seychelles or Mombasa, Kenya.
Citing security reasons, officials with the security firms declined to provide Stars and Stripes the names of shipping companies that had hired them. The security firms said they contacted the shipping companies, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
Mason admits that industry experts have yet to find a "good solution" to the swell of pirate attacks despite an increased presence of military naval vessels in the region. The attacks have prompted commercial freighters to look for ways to protect their cargo.
The number of sea attacks worldwide increased 39 percent last year to 406 cases, the highest in six years, according to the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre. The numbers have steadily increased over the past several years, from 239 incidents in 2006 to 263 incidents in 2007 and 293 incidents in 2008, the organization reported.
Nearly 20 percent of global shipping, including 8 percent of global oil shipments, transit the narrow Gulf of Aden that leads through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. The Gulf of Aden is flanked by volatile Somalia on one side and unstable Yemen on the other. For several years, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have trained the Yemeni coast guard sailors to protect their shoreline — training the Yemeni government is parlaying into additional revenue by allowing the coast guard to hire out its cargo ship protection services.
Every year, more than 23,000 ships carrying billions of dollars in cargo pass through the gulf, dubbed "pirate alley."
Until recently, commercial ships had relied primarily on a handful of international navies for safe passage; a military coalition facing the daunting task of monitoring more than 1.1 million square miles of water.
"The military has had significant successes in the Gulf," Mason said. "The problem is, pirates migrated to the Somali basin, a far bigger area and much more difficult to patrol."
In November 2008, for example, pirates in a skiff brazenly attacked a supertanker 450 miles of the coast of Kenya: an unparalleled attack on such a large vessel sailing so far from land.
Military forces haven’t fully endorsed the practice of security-for-hire firms, but have conceded the need for increased measures.
"While the use of commercial security vessels is a newer trend, the Navy applauds the shipping industry’s continued dedication to increase their safety, as long as they adhere to professional standards and the appropriate legal guidelines," said Lt. Matt Allen, a spokesman with U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/5th Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain.
Countermeasures, including private security firms, might increase the chances of a merchant ship safely navigating the pirate-infested waters, but another regional expert questioned whether such measures will only create different problems.
"The question becomes ‘who, ultimately, is in charge?’ " asked Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa expert with the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House think tank in London. "Is it the master of the ships, who is in charge of the safety of the crew, or the hired security team, whose goal might be different?"
Will the private companies’ tactics be in line with those of the patrolling militaries? To whom will the mercenaries answer, Middleton wondered.
"Private companies, in general, have not always held the most reliable record in some parts of the world," he said.
But Jorrie said the rules of engagement and "order of battle" are clearly defined and established with each client. And most of the security personnel are former military, some special forces, trained in such skills as navigation and radio communications, security and basic maritime skills, Jorrie said.
And his security teams share any incidents and intelligence with the military leaders in the region, though they are not required to do so.