DUBAI // Alarm bells have sounded over the appearance of ships doubling as floating arsenals near UAE waters.
Of the estimated 12 armoury ships operating globally, at least four are known to operate off the coast of Fujairah.
They rent weapons to security companies that guard merchant vessels in the areas where pirates are active, and act as ammunition stores for security companies en route to UAE, Yemen or Saudi Arabian waters, where weapons from other countries are banned.
On October 1, the Sri Lankan-flagged Sinbad was seized by the coastguard after it strayed into UAE waters.
Sinbad is operated by Avant Garde Maritime Services, which runs two other armouries, off the coast of southern Sri Lanka and in the Red Sea.
All are sanctioned by their government for use by private maritime security companies, a company spokesman said.
Avant Garde's website says its clients can rent arms including automatic weapons, ammunition, body armour, light machineguns and night-vision goggles from them.
It also charges US$25 (Dh91) a day to store the weapons and ammunition of other security companies.
Maj Nissanka Senadhipathi, chairman of Avant Garde, declined to give the number of weapons aboard Sinbad but confirmed the arms were owned by the Sri Lankan government.
"Nobody was arrested, they just questioned the men," said Maj Senadhipathi. "They were not treated as detainees.
"We were checked and our authenticity as a joint venture with the government of Sri Lanka was proved. The ship was released after five to seven days after the check was conducted."
UAE authorities confirmed an incident had been investigated.
Sources said the case had been referred to Fujairah prosecution.
Security experts say the incident highlights the need for stronger regulation and clear standards to prevent the chances of weapons falling into the wrong hands.
"It is a necessary evil and governments can't stop these because they are in international waters," said Nicholas Davis, chief executive of the Maritime Guard Group based in Ras Al Khaimah, which operates two ships off Fujairah and in the Red Sea to store weapons for the company's use.
"Some are run as well as any armoury based ashore but there is an urgent need for standards for armouries across the board."
Maj Senadhipathi said of the Sinbad: "We are highly protected. There are 15 men from the RALL [Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Sri Lanka sea marshals] guarding the weapons at any time."
Protection Vessels International is another company operating patrol boats that store arms, but their ships in the Red Sea and off Fujairah are for private use only to store firearms for clients.
"We have our own vessels for embarking and disembarking firearms and these are regulated [under British law] and under our control," said Simon Osborne, sales director at the maritime security company.
Mr Osborne believes transparency is key. "Other companies who have rented firearms may not know where the firearms are from and who is using them," he said. "We're pushing for regulation, for better standards."
Tim Stear, the director of maritime security at the crisis-management company Control Risks, based in the UAE, believes there are varying degrees of professionalism on floating armouries.
"There [should] be set minimum standards for secure storage of weapons, with correct records of the number of weapons, the size, calibre and types," Mr Stear said.
Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the security consultancy Inegma in Dubai, said the focus of regulation should be safety.
"Certain precautions must be followed with floating armouries to avoid an accident or attack by any individual or group," Mr Karasik said.
The UAE has a strict policy against transferring arms across its borders, he said.
"If a floating armoury is too close or requires inspection, the UAE will make sure the proper procedures are being followed," Mr Karasik said.
* With reporting by Wafa Issa