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Government to let ships carry armed guards

The Japan Times
Friday, April 05, 2013

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The government is set to submit a bill to the Diet that would permit armed guards on Japanese ships after their presence on other vessels in waters off Somalia led to a sharp fall in piracy.

Some 18,000 ships annually sail through the Gulf of Aden, which connects Europe and Asia, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and the Japan Coast Guard. The total includes about 1,700 ships registered in Japan or operated by Japanese shipping companies.

The total number of ships attacked by pirates in the gulf and nearby waters off Somalia jumped from 44 in 2007 to 111 in 2008 and 237 in 2011.

The spate of attacks prompted the United States, European and Asian nations to dispatch military ships to the area for the protection of ships, starting around 2009.

Japan assigned two Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels to the area, joined by eight Japan Coast Guardsmen.

Even so, the number of pirate-related incidents continued to increase.

Since 2007, 13 Japanese ships have been attacked. In March 2011, the Bahamian-registered oil tanker Guanabara, operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., was boarded in the Arabian Sea. The U.S. military seized four pirates and handed them over to Japanese authorities. They were brought to Japan, tried and three have been convicted. The remaining defendant’s trial has yet to reach a ruling.

In 2012, the total number of attacks suddenly dropped to 75 after countries such as Britain and Italy began allowing ships to carry armed guards the year before.

Recently, more than 35 percent of ships sailing in the waters carried armed guards. Coupled with other measures, such as frequent course changes by ships, the presence of armed guards contributed to a fall in the proportion of vessels taken over to 18.7 percent in 2012 from 37.8 percent in 2008.

Current Japanese law prohibits Japan-registered ships from carrying armed private citizens.

If the Diet approves special legislation worked out by the transport ministry, Japanese ships will be allowed to carry armed guards from foreign private security contractors in waters off Somalia. Shipowners would be required to gain approval for such security plans in advance from the ministry.

“Ships with no armed guards aboard are likely to be targeted by pirate attacks. We will do our best to get the legislation passed in the current session of the Diet,” a ministry official said.

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