MUMBAI, Apr 11 – Alarmed by a big jump in pirate attacks, India\’s shipping industry says it needs a new security strategy to safeguard vessels in the dangerous waters off Somalia\’s lawless coast.
At least 95 Indian sailors are still being held by Somali pirates after they seized nine small ships in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa late last month, the Indian government says.
The attacks, targeting one of the world\’s busiest maritime trade routes, were the latest in a string on Indian vessels in which dhows — slow-moving, mechanised boats — have been among the most vulnerable.
"(Dhow) piracy is becoming a major problem," said Captain Harish Khatri, India\’s deputy director general of shipping who attended an anti-piracy conference last week in Mumbai.
"We need a new strategy to tackle it," he said at the conference which was organised by the seafarers\’ unions and drew shipowners, government officials, maritime agencies and foreign security intelligence experts.
In the latest incident in which least 121 Indian sailors were captured — 26 were subsequently released — all were dhows.
India, whose merchant navy has frequently been attacked off the coast of conflict-torn impoverished Somalia, has a warship in Gulf of Aden as part of global efforts to tackle piracy in one of the world\’s riskiest shipping routes.
But "the Somalian coast is (still) the pirates\’ own backyard," said Jim Mainstone, head of intelligence of Britain-based Gray Page, a maritime investigating agency.
The Somali pirates are a far cry from the roguish, sword-wielding and eye-patch wearing plunderers depicted in comics and films such as Pirates of the Caribbean.
Armed with AK-47s, GPS navigation and satellite phones, they raked in an estimated 60 million dollars in ransoms last year.
Ships with no weapons on board and poor surveillance have been particularly susceptible to pirate attacks, experts say.
"They hunt like lions, seeking weak and vulnerable prey," says Mainstone.
The unarmed dhows are at most risk but other larger vessels have also been seized — such as a South Korean supertanker captured by Somali pirates last week.
In 2009, pirates attacked 214 vessels and held 58 Indians hostage.
India\’s government is suggesting that Indian shipowners adopt an "anti-piracy drill" and use private armed guards and decoy vessels to boost sailors\’ security in deep waters.
The proposed anti-piracy drill would involve specialised training for crews in dealing with pirate attacks such as learning self-defence, emergency distress signalling and boat maneuvering techniques to evade pirates.
"We need specialised drills, which should be mandatory," said Captain Kenneth Sajnani, operations general manager of commercial bulk cargo firm Tolani Shipping, based in Mumbai.
Crews should get "customised internal training," he said.
Traditionally, Indian seafarers have been reluctant to carry arms on board and still are.
"This would only escalate an arms race — and the pirates have more sophisticated weapons," said Abdulgani Y. Serang, general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India.
Under five percent of ships in the Gulf region are armed, Mainstone said.
"Piracy is a global issue," Serang told AFP.
India\’s navy says its elite, anti-piracy marine commando group has thwarted as many as 17 pirate attacks since the force was created in late 2008.
Last month, the navy says Indian commandos foiled a suspect Somali pirate attack on the Greek bulk carrier Melina 1 off the Indian coast.
But the danger for Indian seafarers, who number around 100,000 according to the government, is real and constant.
"Parents of new seafarers have asked me, \’Is it safe?\’ " says Khatri, who offered no reassurance. "It\’s like being back in the 16th century."