Shipowners arm to fight piracy
January 18, 2011
UPDATED: Norwegian shipowners are beginning to arm their vessels in an effort to fend off pirates on the high seas, especially off the coast of eastern Africa. Seafarers on board the vessels are skeptical, while the government is open to the need for defense. Meanwhile, a former naval vessel reportedly was heading for the area to join the fight, but under private ownership.
The piracy problem is a hot issue in Norway at present, not least after yet another Norwegian-owned ship was captured by pirates over the weekend. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that the Samho Jewelry, registered in Malta but owned by Norwegian ship investment firm Acta, was attacked by pirates about 350 nautical miles off Oman.
The tanker, chartered to Samho Shipping of South Korea, was sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka. South Korea’s president was sending a battleship to the area in an attempt to free the vessel fro the pirates. Samho paid out USD 9 million in ransom money just two months ago to free another tanker, the Samho Dream.
The piracy danger has become a nightmare for shipowners and those in Norway already have complained that their government isn’t doing enough to battle the problem. It seems some thus are taking matters into their own hands, with the boss of Norwegian shipowning company Stolt-Nielsen telling DN on Saturday that his family-owned firm now has armed guards on board Stolt-Nielsen vessels off the coast of Africa.
“We would gladly avoid having to do this, but we have no choice,” Niels G Stolt-Nielsen told DN, which has been writing extensively about the piracy problem. “When we don’t have a convoy or patrol boats in the area, we’re hiring in armed guards from Yemen’s naval defense forces.”
Stolt-Nielsen called the pirates “terrorists,” and claimed that “the only language (they) understand is warning shots. Then they’ll back off.” He said armed guards are necessary. “There are people on board the ships who need to be protected,” he said, along with the value of the vessels and their cargoes.
DN reported that both Oslo-based Frontline, controlled by tanker tycoon John Fredriksen, and veteran shipowner Fred Olsen are considering having armed staff on board, but won’t go into detail.
“We don’t have any weapons on board, not yet,” Olsen told DN, but added that “the entire industry is drafting this now.” Olav Eikrem, technical director at Frontline also said he wouldn’t rule out having armed guards on board “soon.”
Four of Frontline’s vessels have been attacked in the past two years, and Eikrem said one was nearly taken over: “We had pirates on board, but the crew sought refuge in a citadel on the ship, and the pirates gave up.” A citadel is a heavily reinforced room that the crew can lock themselves into. Barbed wire and water canons can also help fend off pirates.
Seafarer organizations were furious this week over news the Norwegian Defense Ministry would allow private armed initiatives on board ships threatened by pirates. State Secretary Roger Ingebrigtsen had told DN the ministry “fully understood” that shipowners were arming their vessels. Seafarer groups are angry they haven’t been consulted, don’t want weapons on board and demand military, not private, defense.
“It’s important that a Norwegian frigate be sent back to the area as soon as possible,” Hilde Gunn Avløyp of the machinists’ association told newspaper Aftenposten. Hans Sande of the officers’ association (Sjøoffisersforbundet) fears weapons on board will lead to more violence.
Sturla Henriksen of the Norwegian Shipowners Association, which also has called for more Norwegian military participation in anti-piracy efforts, agreed that weapons on board can put seafarers’ in danger. “The situation is going from bad to worse,” he said. “It’s completely unacceptable that Norway has no presence today in the area.”
Government leaders have responded that they are part of the fight, by sending a frigate to the area earlier and now by trying to help Somalia boost its justice sector and economy. “Military action alone won’t solve the problem,” wrote State Secretary Erik Lahnstein in a commentary in DN over the weekend. “We must work towards development in Somalia, to remove the reasons for the piracy.” He admitted that’s “incredibly difficult,” but urged assistance to the authority that does exist so that they can try to stop piracy. “This is one of the reasons that Norway every year is donating more than NOK 200 million to stabilize Somalia.”
Lahnstein also pointed to Norway’s efforts with a group of other maritime nations and neighbors to spur economic development that can lead to alternatives to piracy for poor Somalians. A trial or prison term in Europe “isn’t so very scary” for them,” Lahnstein claimed.
Former frigate to the rescue
Meanwhile, the Norwegian navy has sold its frigate Horten to a former military officer and UN captain, Svein Johnsen, and an anonymous partner who DN reported will use it to keep pirates at bay. Johnsen told DN their new business, called Clear Ocean, will include the frigate, up to eight new ships, six helicopters and a surveillance plane, to patrol the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia.
The vessels will be armed, he told DN, and the helicopters will be used to localize pirates. Officially, Clear Ocean has a 10-year contract with the government of Somalia to protect Somalia’s fishing fleet. “We are to protect fishing vessels who will pay for the fishing rights which again will increase the revenue in the fisheries for the government,” Johnsen wrote in an e-mail to Views and News, where he claimed Clear Ocean was “not in the business of chasing or arresting pirates” and that the weapons on board are “to protect our own assets and customers.” He told DN, though, that “if we are asked to protect Norwegian shipowners, we will of course do so,” for a price to be negotiated.
He told DN that Clear Ocean’s vessels will have a weapons system on board that can stop a boat from a distance of two kilometers. “If the pirates don’t stop before getting within 800 meters of us, they will be stopped,” Johnsen told DN, claiming that financing for Clear Ocean was in place.
Ingebrigtsen of the defense ministry said he had no qualms about the planned operations for the Horten, which even has served as a temporary royal yacht in Norway. “We are glad the ship was sold and we got a good price (NOK 45 million) for it,” he told DN. “We have no opinions about how it will now be outfitted or used. We hope it can be used in a positive way in the area.”