LONDON — British merchant ships travelling around the Horn of Africa will for the first time be able to carry armed guards to protect them from pirates, Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Sunday.
Officials said a legal ban will be relaxed so that shipping companies can apply for a licence from the government to carry weapons on board in the most dangerous areas, mainly off the coast of Somalia.
"We are now going to say to British-flagged ships that they would be licensed if they want to have security guards, armed guards on those ships," Cameron told the BBC.
"The evidence is that ships with armed guards don't get attacked, don't get taken for hostage or for ransoms. So we think it's a very important step forward," he said.
The plan could see commercial, passenger and cargo ships carrying firearms off the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden, in the Arabian Sea and the wider Indian Ocean within a month, a spokesman for Cameron's office said.
Experts agree that private guards do deter pirates, but their use can cause problems of legal jurisdiction and spark concerns about the use of mercenaries, questions of liability and private militarisation of the seas.
But Cameron argued: "Frankly, the extent of the hijack and ransom of ships around the Horn of Africa is a complete stain on our world.
"The fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world and our trading system, I think is a complete insult and so the rest of the world needs to come together with much more vigour."
By October 21, pirates had attacked 369 ships worldwide, with Somalis in search of ransoms responsible for 208 raids.
Cameron said that armed guards were only one way of tackling piracy; it was also important to make sure the pirates faced justice after being caught.
In addition, "I want us to have a far greater focus on this broken country Somalia and how we can try and deal with the causes of the hijack, the piracy, the ransom, the kidnapping", he said.