UAE ships 'should help to fight pirates'

Respresentative of ship involved in hijacking says Emirates can help to safeguard its own business interests, rather than rely on Nato.

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Emirati ships should take part in the proposed Pan-Arab piracy task force off Somalia's lawless coast to help to safeguard regional business interests, UAE shipping representatives say. Several UAE ships have been attacked by pirates recently, raising safety concerns among shipping firms here. Ship owners are calling for more protection from navies in the region and permission to arm their ships. Numerous international ships patrol the pirate-infested waters, but regional navious play a limited role.

"For Nato forces, countries in the Gulf region are not of primary importance. With Arab forces present, we can be sure that businesses and people from this region are safe," said Capt Maqsood Khan, the spokesman and security officer for the UAE-owned cargo vessel MV QSM Dubai, whose captain was killed by hijackers last month. Discussions have alreay started on the formation of a pan-Arab anti-piracy force led by Saudi Arabia. It is expected to include the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and other countries that are willing to provide warships, staff, money, logistical support, intelligence or help prosecuting captured pirates.

Diplomats say the plan has been delayed by other pressing regional security threats. One from Egypt, speaking anonymously, said the Saudi officials spearheading the project have been distracted by the Al Houthi rebellion in Yemen, among other things. "It was an initiative on the part of the Saudis, which was very much welcome, but there has not been a follow-up," he said at a meeting at the UN headquarters last week.

Franciscos Verros of Greece, who chaired the meeting, urged Arab nations to join international efforts because the deployed navies are stretched beyond capacity and face "real and important challenges". Toting assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, pirates have extended their reach in recent months and staged daring raids deep into the Indian Ocean. "That means those who try to combat piracy have to use other means. Ships are not enough - we need more helicopters, we need more patrol planes," Mr Verros said. "It would be most welcome if [Arab] countries participated more actively in the general anti-piracy efforts."

Meanwhile, shipping firms have been demanding that they be allowed to arm their sailors. "My ship was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden where all the naval forces were present. The only way to discourage pirates from attacking is to allow arms on ships," Capt Khan said. International maritime law does not allow arms on merchant ships but many ships have started employing private security guards due to fear of pirate attacks. Nearly 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year, heading to and from the Suez Canal. Figures released by the International Maritime Bureau show that pirate attacks around the world fell by 34 per cent in the first quarter of 2010 compared with a year ago, thanks to the foreign naval presence.

Speaking in April on the Pan-Arab force, Staff Brig Ibrahim al Musharakh, the Commander of the UAE Navy, said the country was happy to be more involved in combating piracy. "This is in the interest of the country," he said. The discussions on the Arab counter-piracy force for the Gulf of Aden were going on, but planning "takes time".