WORLD> Africa
Somali piracy fight offers lucrative market for security firms
Updated: 2008-10-27 09:23

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms, some with a reputation for being quick on the trigger in Iraq, are joining the battle against pirates plaguing one of the world's most important shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia.

Somali pirates hijack the Belize-flagged MV Faina on September 25. [Agencies]

The growing interest among merchant fleets to hire their own firepower is encouraged by the US Navy and represents a new and potential lucrative market for security firms scaling back operations in Iraq.

But some maritime organizations told The Associated Press that armed guards may increase the danger to ships' crews or that overzealous contractors might accidentally fire on fishermen.

The record in Iraq of security companies like Blackwater, which is being investigated for its role in the fatal shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, raises concerns about unregulated activity and possible legal wrangles.

"Security companies haven't always had the lightest of touches in Iraq, and I think Somalia is a pretty delicate situation," said Roger Middleton, who wrote a recent report on piracy in Somalia for Chatham House, a think tank in London.

NATO, with a flotilla of warships due to arrive in Somali waters this weekend, is trying to work out legal and regulatory issues surrounding the use of armed contractors before adopting a position on private security companies.

But the US Navy, part of the coalition already patrolling off the coast of Somalia, says the coalition cannot effectively patrol the 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million square kilometers) of dangerous waters and welcomes the companies.

"This is a great trend," said Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based US 5th Fleet. "We would encourage shipping companies to take proactive measures to help ensure their own safety."

Somali officials also approve of the private contractors.

Abdulkadir Muse Yusuf, deputy marine minister of the semiautonomous region of Puntland, said private firms are welcome in Somali waters. As well as fighting piracy, he said, they could help combat illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping.

Some security companies, not all of which let their employees carry lethal weapons, blame trigger-happy operators in Iraq and Afghanistan for tarnishing the reputation of legitimate businesses.

After a series of shootings that killed civilians, Iraqi legislators negotiated an agreement with the US that will remove some of the private contractors' immunity from prosecution. US authorities are investigating Blackwater for improperly bringing weapons into Iraq and for its role in the 2007 Iraqi civilian deaths.

The removal of immunity, Iraq's stabilizing security situation and a glut of security operators in the country have combined to tempt some companies to seek a new market in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden off Somalia.

Last week, Blackwater announced it was hiring a ship fitted with helicopters and armed guards for escorting vessels past Somalia's pirate-ridden coast. Spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said it had received 15 inquiries so far.

Peter Singer, an expert on private security companies, agrees Africa is a potential growth market, but he says it's unlikely many firms will abandon work in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are dramatically more business opportunities as long as the wars continue.

"If somehow Iraq ends and you see a shrinking amount of contractors there, most of them are in logistics and training services," Singer added. "None of that carries over to this role."

British firms dominate security work in the Gulf of Aden, but American companies are increasingly getting into the action, according an Associated Press examination of new anti-piracy efforts through interviews in East Africa, Europe and Washington.

In addition to Blackwater, Mississippi-based Hollowpoint, which has not been active in Iraq, says it will provide guards and recover seized ships.

"We'll get your crew and cargo back to you, whether through negotiations or through sending a team in," said CEO John Harris, who is discussing contracts with several companies.

There have been 63 reported attacks on ships off the Somali coast this year alone and probably many more have been carried out. Almost a third of the recorded attacks have been successful.

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