COPENHAGEN, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Danish shipping and oil group A.P. Moller-Maersk (MAERSKb.CO) disclosed on Tuesday that it hired a Tanzanian navy vessel in late 2008 to keep pirates off its Brigit Maersk tanker in waters off Somalia.
Many shipping companies have tried hiring armed guards to protect their vessels against pirates, who have seized ships off Africa and in parts of Asia, but the practice of engaging warships would mark an escalation of efforts against piracy.
It could also mean an extra levy on shippers’ earnings.
Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipper and a large tanker operator, said it hired the Tanzanian vessel to escort its tanker to an East African port after an attack on another Maersk vessel in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008.
“We only paid salaries and bunker (fuel) for the Tanzanians. It was a one-off,” Maersk spokesman Michael Storgaard said.
Maersk Tankers have not called in ports in East Africa in the past 13 months, and the company has no plans to resume tanker service to the area, he said.
Piracy has been rife in recent years off the Horn of Africa, Nigeria and in parts of Asia such as the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Jan Fritz Hansen of the Danish Shipowners Association said international navy escorts in the Gulf of Aden had helped ships through those waters, but sailing further south in the Indian Ocean where such arrangements do not exist can be dangerous.
“Down in the Indian Ocean, things are a little outside the normal procedures, and we have to find ways to protect our vessels,” Hansen said.
“It has become more difficult for the pirates to be successful, so they have moved into the Indian Ocean,” he said, adding that pirates were sometimes operating from “mother vessels” that allowed they to strike at vessels on the high seas more than 1,000 km off shores.
“We don’t see a problem with this,” Hansen said of the hiring of navy vessels.
“Our general recommendation is to not use private guards on board, but official navy crew can be aboard our vessels under a military command or provide escort alongside,” he said.
He said it was overblown to call the Tanzanian navy vessel hired by Maersk a “warship” as some media had done. “This is a patrol vessel, an inspection vessel...not an aircraft carrier.”
Hansen said that the association recommended that the international community work with countries of the region to establish coast guards to patrol waters off East Africa and to improve intelligence and real-time pinpointing of pirate ships.
Security experts say that such developments are worrisome because it could make poor countries navies’ dependent on private cash in the international effort against piracy. (Reporting by John Acher and Peter Levring; Editing by Jon Boyle)