14 February 2013

Filipino Lookouts Help Deter Int'l. Piracy

Int'l. Piracy
About two years ago, victims of piracy over the Gulf of Aden averaged about 2-3 ships a week and multi-million dollar ransoms airdropped to trade for their release. After that, everything seems to have stood still. In fact the last merchant ship to be successfully hijacked was at least nine months ago.

What happened? Where did the small speeding boats with AK-47's, grappling hooks and ladders go?

Most people attribute the decreasing attacks to massive military response and coordinative efforts of international powerhouse. For instance, when ships do come under attack, the first phone to ring is usually in a nondescript white bungalow in the gardens of the British Embassy in Dubai.

The UK Marine Transport Operation (UKMTO) was set up shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks to provide security advice to British shipping in the area. As pirate attacks soared in the second half of the last decade, it found itself coordinating international shipping across much of the Indian Ocean.

Most vessels passing through the area - container ships, tankers, cruise liners and dhows - now register daily with UKMTO. If they believe they are in danger, they will contact the British team to request military support.

"We've had calls when you could hear gunfire and rocket propelled grenades in the background," says Lieutenant Commander Simon Goodes, the current officer in charge. "But lately, the phones are ringing much less."

However, what some people failed to recognized is that commercial ships in the Indian Ocean are now moderately armed. They carry armed private contractors when passing through areas of pirate risk and these groups employ many Filipinos to serve as their security force and lookouts.

The precise security arrangements are not clear. But contracted Filipinos on commercial vessels routinely carry M-16-type assault rifles and sometimes belt-fed machine guns, often picked up from ships acting as floating offshore armouries near Djibouti and Sri Lanka.

Filipino lookouts, on the other hand, are usually posted on the main deck to give warning of any suspicious craft. The benefit these Filipinos receive are more than enough to give their families at home a good life, but it sometimes comes with a fatal risk.

On 4 February 2013, the vessel Pyxis Delta, with eight other Filipino crew members, was hijacked while it was anchored off the coast of Nigeria. The hostage-taking was apparently resolved immediately but it cost the life of a Filipino lookout was shot dead while trying to warn the crew on the radio of what was happening on deck.

Their efforts might not be earth-shaking to bring down the whole pirate business model, but some military officers and analysts believed that the contribution of private Filipino security groups and lookouts have done their share to lower success rate for pirates in the last year and has prompted those bankrolling them to stop.