LONDON (Reuters) - Shipping companies are hiring unarmed security guards for voyages through the Middle East Gulf as an extra safeguard after a wave of attacks in the region, security companies involved said.
Relations between Iran and the West are increasingly strained after Britain seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar this month. Britain also said last week that one of its warships had to fend off Iranian vessels seeking to block a UK-owned tanker from passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
As the risk of escalation grows, shipping associations are urging merchant shipping companies to avoid using private armed security personnel in critical areas including the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of global oil supply passes.
Some shipping companies are turning to experienced security firms to help with a range of issues, from advising ship captains to closely monitoring a vessel above the waterline where explosives such as limpet mines may be placed.
British maritime security company Ambrey typically has 600 guards on ships sailing through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, who are primarily armed, the firm’s operations director Gavin Lock said.
In the past three weeks, however, an additional 80 to 120 unarmed advisers have been deployed on ships transiting through the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
“It’s an assurance for the master as not all of the crews are tested as our MSOs (maritime security operators) have been in real-time operational situations,” Lock said.
“We have certainly seen Middle East-flagged ships come to us to provide teams of advisers,” he said, declining to provide further details.
Gerry Northwood, chairman of security company MAST, said his firm was also providing unarmed teams going into the Gulf.
“It’s important that vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz identify potential Iranian craft early and report sightings to the authorities and make it clear to approaching craft that they have seen them,” Northwood said.
The most recent incidents follow a spate of attacks on tankers since May around the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, which the United States has blamed on Iran. Tehran denies involvement.
Private security companies providing armed teams operate in the region although they are licensed only for counter-piracy operations. Unarmed specialists do not face the same restrictions.
Jim Hilton, managing director with maritime security company PVI, said while a ship’s crew were able to carry out functions including increased watches and regular walk-rounds of the vessel, external support could provide “psychological comfort”.
“The risk mitigation that a particular company chooses with unarmed bridge advisers or unarmed security guards onboard might just help them satisfy their own internal due processes and enable them to continue trading,” he added.
Hilton said PVI also had a small uptick in requests and on occasion had provided guards, who remained onboard “once weapons have been disembarked”.
When contacted, several shipping companies declined to comment on their security arrangements.
“Maersk Tankers is monitoring the situation closely and taking precautionary measures in line with flag state and industry guidance,” the Danish group said in a statement.
Shipping firms are either avoiding the area - even for picking up marine fuel - or keeping journeys to a minimum due in part to the risks, industry sources said.
Additional insurance premiums are up tenfold, adding as much as $100,000 in costs for a supertanker sailing on a seven-day trip, ship insurers added.
Editing by Veronica Brown and Dale Hudson