Armed guards for merchantmen transiting Gulf of Aden

By Ritu Sharma, IANS,

New Delhi : Shipping companies are deploying armed guards on their merchant vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest and the most piracy-infested shipping lanes in the world, following a spike in hijackings by Somali pirates, an official said Tuesday.

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“They (the shipping companies) have started posting guards on ships passing through the region,” Captain Anshul Rajvanshi of the Mumbai-based Ebony shipping company told IANS. Ebony was involved in the fleet management of the Hong Kong-flagged MV Stolt Valor, with a crew of 22, including 18 Indians, which was hijacked by Somali pirates Sep 15 in the Gulf of Aden.

The ship was released Nov 16 after a ransom of $2.5 million was reportedly paid. The vessel’s captain, Prabhat Goyal, and 12 other crew members returned here Tuesday. The other five Indians had returned to Mumbai Monday.

“The guards, akin to sky marshals, will only be for the Gulf of Aden. When the ship crosses the danger zone they will disembark. Though it will prove a costly affair, we are looking at the security of our crew,” Rajvanshi said.

There have been 95 hijacking attempts in the Gulf of Aden this year, a 75 percent increase over last year. At present, a number of vessels, including the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star carrying crude oil worth $100 million and an Uzbek vessel carrying tanks, are in the captivity of the Somali pirates.

According to Rajvanshi, once the pirates take over a vessel, negotiation is the only way out.

“One can take precautions to prevent a hijacking, but once a ship has been hijacked everyone is helpless and negotiation is the safest option available,” Rajvanshi maintained.

The helplessness in deal with such a contingency was also expressed by Captain Prabhat Goyal, the master of the Stolt Valor, who returned home Tuesday.

“We are simple merchant sailors. We do not have any way to deal with such situations. We had taken all the precautions and followed all the guidelines laid down by the international organizations. But once the pirates boarded the ship, we were helpless,” Goyal told IANS here.

“Some courses could be started for merchant navy sailors during training in view of the hijackings or a new chapter may be added to the ISPS (International Ship and Port Security) code,” Goyal added.