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Another tanker hijacked as Britain takes lead role in EU mission to keep shipping lanes open for trade

  • The Observer, 
  • Sunday October 12 2008

Britain is to send a warship to combat piracy off the East African coast amid concerns that a spate of violent attacks on shipping could drive up oil prices.

The increasingly treacherous waters off the Horn of Africa are regularly used by Shell Oil, as well as by aid agencies shipping food. John Hutton, the new Defence Secretary, has agreed to deploy the frigate Northumberland which will provide an operational headquarters for a European Union mission to pursue and disrupt piracy in the region.

Yesterday the International Maritime Bureau reported that another tanker had been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. The Greek chemical tanker, with 20 crew on board, is thought to have been taken late on Friday night. Eleven ships and around 200 crew in total are now being held captive. Pirates holding another tanker laden with a cargo of heavy weapons off the Somali coast have threatened to blow it up by tomorrow if their ransom demands are not met.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said there were concerns that oil tankers would begin avoiding the region and taking longer routes around Africa, driving up oil prices. ‘The fear is that it adds so many more miles that the price of petrol rises. Potentially it has a direct impact on the wider world.’

The rules of engagement for what would be a joint EU mission, with Britain appealing to other EU nations to provide warships and helicopter support, have yet to be decided. But it marks an escalation from Britain’s current position that ships already patrolling waters off the Horn of Africa will intervene if they come across attacks on shipping.

The problem was discussed last week at a meeting of defence secretaries in Budapest and plans are expected to be finalised in the next 10 days. Britain is offering to deploy Northumberland, a Type 23 frigate, the mainstay of the modern surface fleet, and a rear admiral to command the mission for four months, with the total deployment expected to last a year.

There have been more than 50 attacks on shipping in the region in the past year, with the Somali government unable to enforce its writ either on land or at sea. Extortion and people smuggling have replaced fishing as a coastal industry and while initially hostages were relatively well treated, violence has escalated recently with threats to behead Europeans caught at sea. Insurance costs for merchant shipping in the region have spiralled, threatening a knock-on effect on prices for goods.

Last week the senior Royal Navy commander in the Gulf, Commodore Keith Winstanley, suggested that civilian shipping should use armed private security personnel to secure safe passage through the area. Merchant shipping has not been significantly armed since the Second World War, but Winstanley argued that security companies working in Iraq or Afghanistan could have a role to play.

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