Armed guards protect Swiss ships from pirates

The fight against pirates has been stepped up Keystone

Swiss shipping operators have confirmed that they have been employing armed security personnel to guard their vessels from pirate attacks in hot spots around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.

This content was published on August 19, 2012 - 16:53 and agencies

Three years ago Swiss parliament voted not to take part in a European Union-sponsored security operation, called the Atalanta mission, designed to protect shipping, crews and cargo from increasing attacks by pirates in crucial commercial sea lanes.

This decision did not affect the rights of ship owners and operators from hiring their own private security guards, but the subject remains sensitive with some observers believing the strategy could lead to an escalation of violence.

“The long-term custom of commercial ships being unarmed has to be thrown overboard,” Lukas Roth, head of the commercial shipping department at the foreign ministry, told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.

“No Swiss operator wants armed soldiers on board their boats. [But] ships from the Swiss commercial fleet also have armed guards from private security companies.”

Maritime tradition

Only some ships that negotiate particularly difficult stretches resort to these methods, Roth added. Another restriction is the high cost of such security, with a four person team costing SFr40,000 per week.

Some Swiss ships have been able to find shelter within the security screen operated and paid for by other countries, despite Switzerland’s earlier decision not to actively contribute to the strategy.

Despite the coordinated anti-pirate campaign slowing down the rate of attacks, ships are still vulnerable to raids. There are an estimated 212 people currently being held hostage by pirates looking for ransom money.

Landlocked Switzerland plays a surprisingly prominent role in the commercial shipping scene. The Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company operates 422 vessels, accounting for 10.8 per cent of global shipping container capacity.

A 2011 United National shipping report ranked Switzerland alongside France and Denmark as the highest capacity to transport goods by sea. The trade grew in value from $2 trillion to $4 trillion between 2001-2008, according to UN estimates.

Swiss merchant navy

Despite being landlocked, Switzerland has one of the most modern merchant fleets in the world, comprising 35 privately operated tankers and container ships that fly the Swiss flag in international waters.

In March 2008 the Swiss parliament approved a five-year, SFr500 million support package for the country's merchant navy operators. Parliament had already accepted a ten-year funding mechanism totalling SFr600 million in 2002.

Officially based in Basel's Rhine port, the navy was set up to ensure that goods would still enter Switzerland in the event of a crisis.

In 2002 Swiss sailors accounted for about 3% of all sailors worldwide.

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