MOGADISHU, Somalia, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- A leading British insurer is reported to be planning the world's first private navy to combat Somali pirates raking in an estimated $150 million a year in ransoms from shipping companies.
At the same time, on the other side of Africa, the security market in oil-rich, piracy plagued Nigeria, which has long been dominated by the British, is being shaken up after three French seamen were kidnapped Sept. 21.
The Independent newspaper of London says that the Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group, which insures 14 percent of the world's commercial shipping, seeks to set up a fleet of 20 private vessels specifically to protect ships in the Gulf of Aden region where the Somali pirates operate. Start-up costs are estimated at around $15 million.
"We're looking at setting up a private navy to escort vessels through the danger zones," said Sean Woollerson, a senior JLT partner.
"We'd have armed personnel with fast boats escorting ships and make it very clear to any Somali vessels in the vicinity they they're entering a protected area," he told The Independent.
The report coincides with calls by shipping organizations and seafarers' unions for the governments of maritime states to deploy greater resources to combat piracy off Somalia, which has been wracked by clan warfare since 1991.
The shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest maritime arteries in the world that links the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, are currently patrolled by a multinational naval force, including a U.S.-led NATO task force and an EU flotilla.
But over the last three years they've been unable to prevent dozens of ships from being hijacked by pirates using speedboats launched from mother ships well out to sea.
The modern-day buccaneers have extended their raids eastward into the Indian Ocean, far from the operational zones used by the naval forces in the region to shield the 22,000 commercial vessels that ply the regional waters every year.
At present, 16 ships and 354 seamen are being held by Somali pirates at bases along the country's Indian Ocean coastline.
London shipping sources estimate there are around 1,000 Somali pirates to whom the maritime insurance industry has paid out some $300 million in ransoms and associated costs in the last two years.
NATO documents indicate that the average ransom payment has doubled in the last year to some $4 million per ship, with most captives held for 117 days.
In 2009, there were 217 attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden, with 47 vessels hijacked despite the presence of naval forces, which are too few to deploy deep into the Indian Ocean. So far this year, there have been 123 attacks with 33 ships commandeered.
Some shipping companies hire armed personnel from security contractors to accompany their vessels using the Gulf of Aden but most don't for fear the practice will provoke an escalation by the pirate gangs.
"At the moment, there's a disconnect between the private security sector and the international naval force," Woollerson explained.
"We think we can help remedy and place this force under the control of the multinational force. We look after about 5,000 ships and have had 10 taken in total, including a seizure where one crewmember was shot and killed."
Several obstacles remain before the proposed force can be launched, particularly the tricky question of the private navy's legal status and its relationship with the naval task forces.
But major shipping companies are showing interest, although they're adamant JLT's private navy shouldn't lead to a reduction in the naval deployment that they feel is inadequate.
In Nigeria, the Sept. 21 kidnapping of seamen aboard the French-flagged Bourbon Offshore, a support vessel serving drilling platforms, is opening up the private security market long dominated by Control Risks of London.
Africa Energy Intelligence, a Paris Web site, reports that the company is facing competition from the Anglo-Danish Group 4 Securicor, now employed by Italy's ENI oil giant, and Geos of France which has a contract with the French Agip oil company.
Nigeria's oil industry has been plagued by tribal insurgents for five years and currently faces a possible resurgence of attacks.