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Challenging a global aversion to guns aboard ships, France has put troops on tuna boats in the Indian Ocean, and Belgium is offering military units to its merchant vessels off the Horn of Africa. Now, U.S. lawmakers are weighing similar action to fight piracy.
Opponents fear such moves will escalate the violence and raise a minefield of legal issues.
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment that would require the Department of Defense to put armed teams on U.S.-flagged ships passing through high-risk waters, specifically around the Horn of Africa where Somali pirates have become a scourge of world shipping.
The amendment now goes to the Senate. A separate bill introduced last month would grant immunity from prosecution in American courts to any “owner, operator, time charterer, master, or mariner who uses force, or authorizes the use of force, to defend a vessel of the United States against an act of piracy.”
Both measures face tough debate — U.S. military resources are spread thin and onboard weapons, especially in the hands of civilian crew, are seen as an extreme option.
“Work and watch-keeping take up most of a seafarer’s day,” Sam Dawson of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents hundreds of unions, told The Associated Press by e-mail. “The practice, handling and use of weapons would be a duty too far.”
But there is a strong push for action following the April seizure of the MV Maersk Alabama.
That standoff, which transfixed the American public, ended with the killing of three pirates by Navy SEAL snipers and the release of the vessel’s captain, Richard Phillips.
The wider potential fallout from the Western initiatives is uncertain because countries such as the Philippines, which supplies most of the world’s ship crews, don’t have the resources to protect them. Besides, the laws of many nations prevent vessels from carrying weapons, historically for fear they would be used by mutineers.
A range of maritime groups and insurers oppose arming ships because of liability issues and fears that violence could provoke an arms race with the pirates. Still, some ship-owners hire private guards; Israeli commercial boats are believed to routinely carry arms.
“What the Americans do will not necessarily lead the way in terms of the global shipping industry,” said Daniel Sekulich, the Toronto-based author of “Terror on the Seas: True Tales of Modern Day Pirates.”
Sekulich said a global trend could take hold if international groups such as the U.N. International Maritime Organization develop a comprehensive approach to arming ships. In the meantime, he said, the U.S. initiatives could encourage a “two-tiered or three-tiered system” in which a few wealthy nations protect ships flying their flags, while pirates prey on softer targets.
International patrols, including U.S., European, Chinese, Russian and Indian ships, have reduced the success rate of Somali attacks. But with ransoms running into millions of dollars, pirates have adapted, raiding boats far into the Indian Ocean.
Advocates say onboard teams with weapons would deter or defeat ragtag bands of pirates in flimsy skiffs. On April 25, pirates tried to board the Italian cruise liner MSC Melody as it headed in the Indian Ocean from southern Africa to Europe, but Israeli private guards opened fire and the assailants departed.
For opponents, the worst-case scenario is pirates getting bigger weapons.
“It’s something that could actually stoke up the attacks, take the attacks to a higher level,” said Andrew Linington of London-based Nautilus International, a union that represents 24,000 mariners, most of whom work on British- or Dutch-registered ships.
But internal polling among Nautilus members has indicated a “hardening of attitudes” in recent months, with more calling for armed protection, Linington said.
This summer, the Netherlands turned down a plea from parliament to put marines on especially vulnerable, slow-moving Dutch vessels threatened by Somali pirates. The refusal was based on fear that pirates could react more violently if they spot weapons and that wounded marines would not get medical care at sea.
Belgium, however, decided in early May to offer an onboard detachment of at least eight troops for euro115,000 ($162,000) a week per unit to its commercial vessels, but so far there has been only one taker, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Kurt Verwilligen.
The French government signed a deal with a tuna fishermen’s union in June allowing for military protection of tuna boats in the Indian Ocean during the fishing season, according to Lt. Col. Phillippe de Cussac, a military spokesman. No attacks have been reported so far.
Global pirate attacks more than doubled in the first half of 2009 to 240, from 114 in the same period last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau. A surge of raids in the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia accounted for many attacks, though waters off Nigeria are a serious trouble spot.
The Somali attacks are in a lull because seas are rough, but are expected to increase around the end of this month when the weather should improve.
The measure to put military guards on U.S.-flagged ships passed in the House by a vote of 389-22.
In testimony in May, Arthur J. Volkle Jr., vice president of American Cargo Transport, Inc., said private guards were already on his group’s ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf. He said the best way to protect U.S.-flagged ships was by deploying military teams to avoid “regulatory shortfalls, liability concerns, and international reluctance to permit armed merchant vessels into their ports.”
Phillips, the Maersk Alabama captain, has testified that senior crew members should have access to weapons, though he acknowledged that even this limited approach opens “thorny” issues. Maritime experts say some seafarers travel with small arms, but don’t declare them.
The separate bill granting immunity has yet to go to a House vote. It would direct Washington to negotiate deals through the U.N. maritime agency to provide similar exemptions from liability in other countries, as well as to ensure armed U.S. crews can enter foreign ports.
But implementing the measure could be difficult because the U.N. agency discourages onboard weapons.