As armed guards on tanker headed for Fujairah scare off pirate skiffs, maritime security experts warn against complacency.

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DUBAI // Merchant ship-owners have been warned against complacency in thinking Somali pirates have been defeated, amid growing attacks and skirmishes at sea.

The most recent incident occurred at the beginning of this month, when two skiffs approached a tanker headed for Fujairah. The attempted attack in the Gulf of Aden was foiled by the ship’s armed guards. It was one of several pirate sightings this year in the Arabian Gulf region.

“It would require only one successful attack to encourage others to revert to this activity,” said P Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau.

“The threat from Somali piracy has not gone away. There are reports received by the IMB which indicate that pirates are still operating, although in smaller numbers. It is therefore important that all vessels continue to remain vigilant and take all self-protection measures.”

There was an even more stark warning from Mohammed Bisthamy, 60, one of 11 crew from the hijacked MV Albedo who escaped from a gang of Somali pirates two months ago.

“Now they are hungry and dangerous because they have not got a ship for so long. They need money and are on the lookout for more ships,” Mr Bisthamy said.

“Continuing safeguards is important, because from my experience the pirates can strike anywhere.”

Pirates have not seized a UAE-owned vessel since the release of the chemical tanker MV Royal Grace and its 21 hostages in March last year after more than a year in captivity.

Naval patrols and armed guards on board merchant ships have reduced the number of attacks. Ships have also installed barbed wire, deployed water hoses and increased speed in known piracy areas to deter attacks.

However, experts warned of the need for constant monitoring in the Gulf of Oman, the north Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el Mandeb, the strait between Arabia and Africa.

The UAE’s proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s oil exports pass, has always made vigilance necessary with slow-moving big ships a target for pirates in fast-moving skiffs and speedboats.

Convincing owners to keep alert levels high was crucial, experts said.

“The greatest challenge is encouraging vessels to remain vigilant and avoid complacency in the face of so little activity,” said Ian Millen, chief operating officer of Dryad Maritime, an intelligence company that helps seafarers to manage threats from piracy and terrorism.

“Those companies that use the downturn in piracy to relax their guard and save money are at most risk from their vessels being involved in future piracy events. It is the responsibility of ship-owners to conduct proper risk analysis of their vessels and the transits they make.”

Maritime security firms also advise clients to remain watchful.

“Our advice is that all vessels and their crew transiting through this region should remain at a high state of alertness,” said Simon Barlow, the managing director of Unity SPS.

“During a pirate attack time is always critical, and crews that remain vigilant and well trained will be in a better position to identify a threat.”

Watch-keeping duties should be formulated to counter existing threats, coupled with regular crew training, monitoring updated intelligence reports and reporting suspicious behaviour to the UK Maritime Trade Organisation)and the IMB, he said.