Merchant shipping owners warned yesterday that a policy to allow British vessels sailing off Somalia to carry armed guards is at best a "short-term" measure and could lead to an escalation of violence by pirates.
Prime Minister David Cameron said experience had shown that ships carrying armed personnel while operating off the Somali coast did not get attacked or their crews taken hostage.
Under the Home Office-administered scheme to start within a month, contractors offering guards will be subjected to "stringent" checks to ensure they conform with safety guidelines. But it is as yet unclear which rules of engagement would be applied in any attempt to ward off boarding pirates.
Peter Hinchliffe, of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents more than 80 per cent of the world's merchant fleet, said that gun-wielding guards did not represent a long-term solution.
He said: "It is a short-term palliative measure. To date, no ships with armed guards on board have been captured. But pirates will respond with increased firepower to overwhelm the armed guards, and when that happens the impact on the crew will be pretty dreadful."
Mr Cameron said "the fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world and our trading system I think is a complete insult".