* U.S. Coast Guard requires guards on ships off Somalia
* Ship owners to decide on using armed or unarmed guards
* New mandate follows escalating Horn of Africa piracy
(Adds quotes, detail)
By Jane Sutton
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., May 12 (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard will require U.S.-flagged ships sailing around the Horn of Africa to post guards and ship owners to submit anti-piracy security plans for approval, a Coast Guard official said on Tuesday.
The new requirements, which respond to a surge of piracy off the coast of Somalia, allow ship owners to decide whether to use armed or unarmed guards, Coast Guard Rear Admiral James Watson told shipping industry representatives at a maritime security meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The revised Maritime Security Directive, highly anticipated by the shipping industry, was signed on Monday by Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen.
"We expect to see additional security on U.S.-flagged vessels that transit these waters," said Watson, the Coast Guard’s director of prevention policy.
"It can involve the use of firearms," he said, but added, "We are looking for things that work but that don’t make the situation worse."
The requirement to post guards applies only to ships sailing off the Horn of Africa, but the owners of all U.S.-flagged ships must submit security plans to the Coast Guard within two weeks, Watson said.
"They’re going to tell us what they propose," and then the Coast Guard will give thumbs up or thumbs down, Watson said.
He said the directive does not dictate how many guards must be posted on each vessel, or what type of training they must have. He said the Coast Guard would work with ship owners whose plans are deemed inadequate to fend off pirate attacks.
"We’re not interested in putting ships out of business," he said.
The piracy off the coast of Somalia included an attack against the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama last month. The ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, was freed four days later when U.S. commandos shot and killed three pirates.
Arming cargo ships has been a sensitive issue because some countries will not allow armed vessels to enter their ports. Additionally, arming the ships can raise liability issues and increase insurance costs.
Some ship owners fear it could cause misunderstandings to escalate into gunfights, noting for example that fishermen off Yemen sometimes fire their automatic rifles into the air to warn other vessels away from their nets.
U.S.-flagged ships that carry military cargo already are armed, Watson said.
The U.S. State Department is working with countries in pirate-plagued regions to learn what weapons laws apply in their ports in order to clarify the issue for U.S. mariners.
It may also try to negotiate agreements allowing armed U.S. ships to enter those countries’ ports, said Donna Hopkins, of the State Department’s political and military planning and policy division.
Asked if that meant the United States would allow armed foreign vessels in its ports, Hopkins said, "Diplomacy is based on the principle of reciprocity ... that certainly is going to be part of the debate."
Watson said the new directive would not be publicly released in its entirety because it contained sensitive security information.
But at the urging of shipping officials at the conference, he said a scrubbed version might be released to help shipping companies learn good security measures from each other.
"It’s the actual security that’s on a particular vessel that we want to keep close-held," Watson said. (Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman)