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Security

PIRACY

In 2020, 195 cases of piracy and armed robbery targeting ships were recorded, compared to 162 in 2019. The incidents included 3 ship hijackings, 11 vessels fired upon, 20 attempted attacks and a total of 161 successful attempts at boarding ships. The above-mentioned developments are linked to the gathering pace of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea. Armed robbery has also been on the rise in the Singapore Straits.
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The Gulf of Guinea accounts for more than 95% of crew kidnappings worldwide. A record 130 crew were kidnapped in 22 different incidents. Since 2019 the Gulf of Guinea has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of multiple kidnappings of crew members.

Incidents in the Gulf of Guinea are especially dangerous, since more than 80% of attackers are armed with handguns. Every single one of the 3 ship hijackings and 9 of the 11 cases of ships coming under fire happened in this region. Crew kidnappings were reported in 25% of the attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Guinea, more than anywhere else in the world.

Kidnapped crew are taken off their ship and detained on shore during the negotiations for their release. The most far-flung crew kidnapping in 2020 took place almost 200 nautical miles (NM) from land. On average kidnappings are carried out about 60 nautical miles from land.

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The rise in the number of kidnappings on the high seas shows that pirate capabilities have grown. As a result, shipping is advised never to sail less than 250 NM from shore in the region, unless safe passage or unloading is possible. The only way to counter the ever growing range of the attacks and the increased capabilities of pirates is to intensify the exchange of information and coordination between ships and the relevant authorities in the region.

In view of the disturbing developments in the region, the Best Management Practices with respect to piracy in West-Africa, including the Gulf of Guinea, were issued in April 2020. It is extremely important that vessels adhere to these directives.

RBSA remains in close contact with the Belgian Defence Ministry to protect the security of ships in several high-risk areas, including the Gulf of Guinea. Beyond current projects in the region in which Belgian naval vessels are participating to increase shipping security in the region, the possibilities are being studied to join the Coordinated Maritime Presence (CMP), recently created by the European Union. The CMP is designed to support the ‘Yaoundé architecture’, which also involves the creation of a Maritime Area of Interest Coordination cell (MAICC) for military experts and intelligence gathering. The scheme moreover includes a unified European naval unit in the region. Participation in this force is voluntary and the command structure is organised nationally.
RBSA has also kept in touch with the Minister for the North Sea, first Philippe De Backer and then his successor Vincent Van Quickenborne, as well as the maritime security section of the DG for Shipping to discuss the situation and possible initiatives to improve security. On 10 February, the DG for Shipping and the Crisis Cell of the Ministry of Internal Affairs organised a piracy exercise in cooperation with other relevant government agencies and RBSA. The scenario involved the hijacking of a Belgian vessel in the Gulf of Guinea. It was a first, useful exercise to analyse information flows. However a follow-up exercise with a more sophisticated scenario is necessary to clarify the role of all parties involved should a real incident occur.
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The number of incidents on ships passing through the Singapore Straits has been growing since late 2019, with 23 incidents reported in 2020. Pirates boarded the vessel in 22 of the 23 incidents. Although this type of piracy in the region is usually limited to low-level armed robberies at dusk, one crew member nevertheless got injured, another one got kidnapped and two others were threatened during these incidents. At least 14 of these incidents involved knives.

In Indonesia, the number of armed robberies has remained stable, with 26 low-level incidents in 2020, compared to 25 in 2019. Pirates board vessels at anchor or moored in Indonesian ports. During such incidents, two crew were threatened and another two were taken hostage. The unabated endeavours of the Indonesian Marine Police have significantly reduced the number of incidents.

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Again, no incident was reported from Somalia in 2020. However, vigilance remains a necessity in this region. Best Management Practices need to be applied when sailing through these waters, as Somali pirates still have capabilities to attack shipping in the Indian Ocean.
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Therefore it is very encouraging that the EU Member States decided in late 2020 to extend Operation ATALANTA until December 2022. The operation’s core task, i.e. protecting vessels from the World Food Programme and other vulnerable shipping as well as deterring, preventing and fighting piracy and armed robbery at sea, will be preserved. Operation ATALANTA also has a number of secondary missions, including surveillance operations with respect to fishery activities off the coast of Somalia, arms and drugs trade, illegal charcoal trade and illegal, undeclared and unregulated fisheries.

By means of the BEMTAR project (a joint project of the DG for Shipping and reserve navy officers), Belgian vessels in various high-risk areas are closely monitored and kept informed. The areas under extensive surveillance include the above-mentioned piracy zones, but also increased-risk areas like the Strait of Hormuz and the maritime routes off Libya used by Belgian ships.

This shows how much the Belgian government cares about the worldwide safety of Belgium’s merchant navy and its crew. RBSA very much welcomes this good mutual cooperation and looks forward to continuing in the future.

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