Shipowners alarmed by long-range piracy threat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am

Shipowners are warning of the need for even greater precautions against pirates across the Indian Ocean, fearing Monday's attack on a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker proves that Somali gangs have extended their reach to menace new routes far from the Horn of Africa.

Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, said the range of the pirates, which was once limited to the Gulf of Aden, was now 'absolutely incredible'.

'I think the message is that you can't be too careful once you start across the Indian Ocean ... as the pirates come under greater pressure off the Somali coast, they are managing to get further and further out. It is like pressing a balloon,' he said.

Bowring's comments follow an unsuccessful attack on the 160,000-tonne BW Lion about 400 nautical miles northeast of the Seychelles and 1,000 nautical miles east of the Somali capital Mogadishu - further east than the hijacking of the Chinese ship De Xin Hai and its 25 crew members three weeks ago.

Pirates attacked the BW Lion with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons but the ship increased speed and outmanoeuvred the attackers.

For months, ships have been advised to take precautions on reaching the 60th meridian just east of the Seychelles - the outer limit of existing anti-piracy patrols by international naval forces. Precautions can include blocking entry points on ships - sometimes with barbed wire - priming fire hoses and shutting off location transmitters, as well as registering with international anti-piracy flotillas. Bowring said captains may have to start considering precautions well before the 60th meridian.

Commander John Harbour, spokesman for the European Union's anti-piracy task force - one of the largest in the area - said reviews were under way to possibly extend deployments. 'We are pushing the pirates further out and quite clearly we are going to have to find new ways of responding,' he said.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang reminded Hong Kong mariners that they could call on protection from the nation's 'historic deployment' of warships on anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean.

'If Hong Kong ships need Chinese naval protection, they can apply through relevant channels,' he said.

Commenting on yesterday's report in the South China Morning Post that Beijing had requested a lead role in future co-ordination of the international naval armada off Somalia, Qin described the piracy crackdown as a 'shared international responsibility'.

Chinese officials told international naval counterparts during a meeting in Beijing at the weekend that China wanted to join the rotational leadership of monthly co-ordination meetings held in Bahrain, sessions that involve more than 40 navies. The unprecedented move - yet to be agreed to - is being closely watched by regional analysts seeking the first signs that China is displaying military diplomacy and engagement to match its armed build-up.

'China's sending of warships to Africa was a big surprise but that clearly is not enough for Beijing,' one Asian military attach?said.

'They want to show everyone that they are ready to take a seat at the table ... when it comes to piracy, they will be welcomed. This problem is going to be with us for a long time yet, so it is a perfect one for China to win some friends over.'

Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA general, said: 'China could use this opportunity to tell other countries that we are not just talking without action. We are going to contribute more to international security.'

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan