France to allow armed security guards on its ships


* Private security to help French shippers compete - PM

* Wants French-flagged oil tankers to secure oil supplies

PARIS, Dec 3 (Reuters) - France is to allow private armedguards to protect its shipping fleet against pirates, thegovernment said on Tuesday.

France is one of the main contributors to an internationalnaval force that patrols the Gulf of Aden and the northwesternIndian Ocean to foil pirate attacks launched from Somalia.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the arming of privatesecurity forces would make the French merchant fleet morecompetitive with European rivals.

"We will allow recourse to private teams capable ofcomplementing the navy's missions," Ayrault told the newspaperOuest France. "There has been a strong appeal from shipownersand we have heard it."

A French government official made clear that the privatesecurity agents would be allowed to carry weapons.

Britain, Germany and the United States all allow armedprivate security teams on vessels sailing under their flags.

While it has become standard for ships to have defencesagainst piracy, there are still no industry guidelines or evenagreement among countries on the use of lethal force byanti-piracy teams, whether military or private.

Although tougher ship security and Western naval patrolshave reduced attacks from Somali pirates, French ships areincreasingly being targeted in the Gulf of Guinea off westAfrica, where France has trade ties with former colonies.

A French-owned Luxembourg-flagged tanker was hijacked bysuspected Nigerian pirates off Ivory Coast in February and aFrench sailor, later rescued, was seized by pirates in June offthe coast of Togo.

"It has been two years since we asked for this, so we reallywelcome the government's decision," said Eric Banel, head ofArmateurs de France, the lobby for French shippers.

Ayrault also said that France needed to be able to importfuel products with French-owned tanker fleets.

"The challenge today is to require oil importers into Franceto do so at least partially under the French flag," Ayraultsaid.

"It's fundamental for our energy security. In order tosecure our energy supply, we cannot rely entirely on foreignfleets."

France is required by law to hold a strategic stock of crudeand fuel products equivalent to 90 days of consumption in caseof a major supply disruption, as well as a French-flagged navaltransport capacity for crude imports.

The law will now be changed to ensure that this transportcapacity encompasses refined products to better reflect France'simport needs, Banel said, adding that this would support theFrench shipping sector.

There are currently 10 crude oil tankers and 19 refined oilproducts transporters operating under a French flag, accordingto government figures.


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