LONDON (Reuters) - Somali pirate attacks are expected to surge in coming weeks after a monsoon abates, but defence cuts will undermine international efforts to fight them, a senior European Union navy official said on Wednesday.
Pirate attacks on oil tankers and other ships are costing the world economy billions of dollars a year and navies have struggled to combat the menace, especially in the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean.
“The general trend for navies around the world is for them to have gone through a strategic defence review or something similar and emerged with either no more or in many situations less ships,” said Captain Keith Blount, chief of staff with EUNAVFOR, the bloc’s counter-piracy naval mission off Somalia.
“Balancing priorities is very difficult for governments and counter-piracy I am afraid has to fight for its place in that list of priorities,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Naval patrols, including vessels from the European Union, the United States, South Korea, Iran and other nations have curbed the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden, though not in the Indian Ocean.
Attacks have also slowed in the past two months due to poor weather conditions.
“I think we are going to see a surge in piracy because we always have done at this time when the southwest monsoon abates and the seas become flatter,” Blount said.
“Typically the pirates have a really good go in the autumn and winter,” he said on the sidelines of a shipping conference.
Blount said there were “conflicting priorities with other real military activity” in the Middle East, North Africa and other arenas.
“It is the challenge of industry and the military involved in counter-piracy to lobby governments to try and see piracy as a higher priority than it is,” he told the conference.
In recent days a French woman seized by pirates was freed after a Spanish navy patrol boat fought a fierce gun battle off the Somali coast.
Blount said the military wanted to be able to operate closer to the coasts of Yemen and Eritrea. He said navies were currently only allowed to tackle piracy on the high seas, outside territorial waters, according to the terms of a U.N. convention.
“There is diplomatic activity to try and allow us have a little bit more freedom to operate in those areas,” he said.
“Because we believe the same people are involved, we would like dearly to be able to get in there and get stuck in.”
The shipping industry, some of whose members already employ private guards, says better armed and increasingly violent seaborne gangs pose a growing threat to vital sea lanes.
Blount said the military was “completely agnostic” on private armed guards, and nations, flag states and the industry had to be clear on whether they backed using contractors.
“I think a ship with private security onboard will be taken successfully by pirates — it is a matter of time,” he said.
The industry last week urged the United Nations to create an armed military force to be deployed on vessels to tackle Somali piracy.
“The current military response — with only a handful of navy ships available to provide protection on any given day — has just been a sticking plaster on a gaping wound,” said International Chamber of Shipping chairman Spyros Polemis.
“Governments have so far failed to protect shipping, and the smooth flow of world trade, from being literally held to ransom by Somali criminals,” he said on Wednesday.