Piracy poses threat to world trade as maritime attacks hit record levels

Pirates staged 445 attacks last year, killing at least 21 people. How can they be stopped? Arifa Akbar reports
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Legendary tales of pirating rogues running daring raids on the high seas have provided bedtime entertainment for generations of children. But the modern face of violent piracy could not be further from the age-old myth of the heroic bucanneer.

Legendary tales of pirating rogues running daring raids on the high seas have provided bedtime entertainment for generations of children. But the modern face of violent piracy could not be further from the age-old myth of the heroic bucanneer.

The International Maritime Bureau reported a record number of violent incidents in 2003, amid reports in recent years that machine-gun attacks were soaring.

Numast, the shipping officer's union, sounded an alert over the growing scourge of violent piracy which it fears could end in ecological disaster, and threaten the future of the shipping industry if left unchecked.

Union chiefs warned that British crews were vulnerable to gun attacks, which rose by 50 per cent last year. In total, 644 incidents of violence to ships crews were recorded.

Piracy attacks were the second highest on record last year, with 21 crew fatalities - more than twice the number of deaths in 2002 - and six UK-flagged ships, plus 21 owned or managed from the UK, falling victim to piracy. And with a further 71 crew and passengers listed as missing, there are fears that the violence could have risen to the top spot. The number of seafarers taken hostage last year almost doubled to 359, while 311 ships were boarded and 19 vessels hijacked.

Numast is urging the Government to enlist sea marshals to accompany vulnerable vessels across piracy hotspots, such as the seas off Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nigeria, and union officials have called on the shipping industry to tighten security systems on cargo ships and oil tankers carrying millions of pounds worth of fuel.

The union's general secretary, Brian Orrell, said a radical review of Britain's shipping security was of paramount concern. "We are still a maritime nation despite massive decline of our shipping industry. We rely on shipping for 95 per cent of our trade. One of the worries is if these attacks continue, they will ultimately become a threat to world trade.

"There could also be a major ecological disaster as a result of piracy in some busy straits. We are just complacent because it has not yet happened but it is a disaster just waiting to occur," he said.

IMB's director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, echoed the need for urgent action. "That these ships carrying dangerous cargoes may fall temporarily under the control of unauthorised and unqualified individuals is a matter of concern, for both environmental and safety reasons," he said.

Piracy related deaths have risen sharply in recent times in the Caribbean and off the African coast.

The murder of Antony Griplas, a British businessman, by pirates near Zanzibar last year cast a shadow over the safety of thousands of Britons living abroad.

The Greenpeace campaigner and yachtsman, Sir Peter Blake, 53, was executed in a pirate raid on his yacht in Brazil in December 2002, and in September 1999, adventurer Alan MacLean, 28, was allegedly shot and killed when a group of five pirates boarded his ship in the Indian Ocean north-east of Somalia.

Incidents such as these are causing growing alarm in the shipping community but more foreboding is the emerging trend towards piracy terrorism.

Brian Orrell, Numast's general secretary, said security in the shipping industry had become a blindspot for the Government which international terrorists could exploit.

Britain's 500 ships could be "sitting ducks" for a terrorist attack, he warned.

"In the post-September 11 world, it is completely unacceptable that no real action is being taken against attacks that have the potential to cause massive loss of life and huge environmental damage. There is an emerging strain of terrorist piracy which desperately needs to be addressed. These people have replaced their cutlasses with Kalashnikovs," he said.

In 2002, terrorists struck a French oil tanker, Limburg, with explosives, off the coast of Yemen. Disaster was averted because the tanker was only partly loaded.

The overall number of attacks on tankers last year rose to 22 per cent of the total, a figure that many industry sources blame on the diminshing crew numbers and primitive security systems on such ships.

Crew numbers have halved in the past 25 years due to technological advancements and supertankers carrying up to 500,000 tons of oil are regularly manned by a maximum crew of 22 people.

Mr Orrell criticised ship owners who, he said, were reluctant to spend money on tightening security. "Some ship owners turn a blind, Nelsonian eye to this problem. Most ships lack decent security equipment such as CCTV and alarms."

The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence have acknowledged the consequences of piracy, which is believed to cost the shipping industry an estimated £300m a week.

In a bid to address the problem, Bill Rammel, a Foreign Office minister, will meet with Numast to develop strategies.

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy has expressed its determination to defend Britain from seaborne attack and said that RN convoys were already operating in dangerous waters.

Speaking in this month's Navy News, an MoD in-house magazine, first sea Admiral Sir Alan West acknowleged the piracy threat.

"These pirates are heavily armed, merciless and bloodthirsty," he said.

While the presence of a warship in a region could act as a deterrant, piracy could not be remedied on a national level alone either with escort ships or sea marshals, he said. Royal Navy ships acting in aggressive situations on international waters could cause a diplomatic storm and without international co-operation, the war on pirates was lost.