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Shoot On Sight, Keep Shooting
by James Dunnigan
March 6, 2011

As Somali pirates move farther from the coast (using stolen fishing vessels as mother ships), most shipping in the Indian Ocean is at risk of attack. In response, more ships are putting armed guards on board, even though this practice risks running into laws barring firearms on merchant ships entering their ports or territorial waters. Recently, the ICS (International Chamber of Shipping), a trade organization representing 80 percent of all shipping companies, urged its members to put armed guards on ships moving through pirate infested waters. This now includes most of the Indian Ocean between India and Africa. There are problems with this, beyond gun restrictions. Some countries forbid ships flying their flag from carrying armed guards.

None of this has stopped several private security companies from offering armed guards for ships. The security companies operate from countries that allow them (sometimes after payment of bribes) to have military grade weapons. The security teams sometimes travel unarmed to a port where they can pick up their weapons, and board the ship they are guarding. That works because some shipping companies are carrying rifles and machine-guns on board, but keeping them hidden from port and cargo inspectors. Large merchant ships have lots of places to hide things like a dozen rifles and pistols and a few thousands rounds of ammo. Other security companies will send out a small ship with the armed men on board, and transfer them to the merchant ship in international waters. In short, no one wants to talk openly about how this security business operates. But there's a growing demand, and no shortage of security companies willing to fill the need. This makes lawyers for shipping companies nervous, because of the risk of innocent fishermen getting shot if they approach a guarded ship way that makes the merchant crew nervous. One thing leads to another and someone who isn't a pirate gets shot. Lawsuits follow, and the shipping company has another pirate-related problem. But the shipping companies have reached the point where they would rather handle these lawsuits than more ransom negotiations with pirates.


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