While Asian governments struggle to contain the piracy menace on the region's waters, a controversial and lucrative industry is emerging centred on armed escort boats providing security for commercial vessels.
With former elite military soldiers on board and warnings they are prepared to engage in armed conflict, the groups have sparked a fierce debate over whether they are inflaming maritime tensions and if their actions are legal.
The International Maritime Organisation, the Federation of Asean Shipowners' Association and a senior Malaysian security official have all expressed reservations about the security boats in recent weeks.
But with companies paying sometimes more than 100,000 US dollars for an armed escort mission, there is undoubtedly demand for extra security from merchant vessels concerned about their vulnerability to pirate attacks.
The narrow 960-kilometre-long Malacca Strait, bordered by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and a particularly strong magnet for pirate attacks.
The Malacca Strait is used by about 50,000 ships a year carrying a third of world trade and half its oil supplies, and the attacks have led to concerns the waterway and adjoining Singapore Strait are also vulnerable to terrorists. Industry sources said there were as many as seven armed escort groups already based in Singapore or in the process of setting up operations in the city-state, with most of them arriving over the past year.
One of the highest profile and apparently most successful groups is Background Asia Risk Solutions (BARS), which describes itself on its website as "the leading provider of armed escorts in South East Asia for maritime assets".
"Our teams are manned by experienced former military and police tactical personnel," the website says.
BARS managing director Alex Duperouzel said his organisation was conducting two to three escort missions throughout Asia each month, with it unusual for each operation to cost less than 50,000 dollars.
Most of these missions are for ships involved in the oil and gas sector, Duperouzel said.
Another organisation that has been operating from Singapore is Malacca Straits Maritime Security, a subsidiary of Glenn Defense Marine, which has been offering escorts featuring armed former British military Gurkha soldiers. A burst of publicity in the Singapore press recently about the armed escorts led to a strong reaction from Malaysia's internal security director, Othman Talib, who reportedly said any such vessel would be detained if found in Malaysian waters.
"They have no power in this country and it is a violation of our territorial sovereignty," the Bernama news agency quoted Othman as saying late last month.
The issue of sovereignty in regards to the Malacca Strait has been extremely sensitive for Malaysia and Indonesia, with the two nations consistently rejecting any offers of foreign help in policing the waterway.
Glenn Defense Marine's head of operations for maritime security, Stephen Weatherford, said that, following Othman's comments, Malacca Straits Maritime Security had suspended its escort operations while clarifying their legal status with all relevant regional authorities.
"We are not out to cause any issues with any government," Weatherford said, adding he was "hopeful" the company's escort services would soon be back in operation. BARS has insisted throughout the controversy sparked by Othman's comments that its operations comply with all laws, and Duperouzel said the firm's missions were continuing through Malaysian waters and elsewhere.
"We sought clarification and our activities continue in an appropriate fashion," Duperouzel said.
Singapore police spokesman Victor Keong also confirmed that various armed escort services had been registered and licensed in the city-state
"We do not allow unlicensed private armed guards to operate in Singapore," Keong said in an e-mail. Aside from the legal issue, critics argue that armed escorts risk inflaming a pirate incident, and could lead to disastrous consequences in the event of a shoot-out between the attackers and security personnel.
"What if they are escorting a big oil or chemical tanker? God knows what could happen," the Federation of Asean Shipowners' Association's secretary general, Daniel Tan, said.
The International Maritime Organisation, the United Nation's maritime regulatory body, also opposes any arming of ships to counter piracy.
"The carrying and use of firearms for personal protection or protection of a ship is strongly discouraged," said an IMO circular e-mailed to AFP from the organisation's London media office in response to queries on the issue.
"Carriage of arms on board ships may encourage attackers to carry firearms thereby escalating an already dangerous situation, and any firearms on board may themselves become an attractive target for an attacker."
Duperouzel rejected the criticism, saying crews had every right to protect themselves from pirates.
"With respect to the IMO, they are not out on the water, they are not faced with an AK-47 from very close range," he said.
"The criminals who perpetrate these acts have no respect for the IMO and in order to protect the lives of personnel at the end of that barrel, it's important to take firm steps to prevent loss of life."
Glenn Defense Marine's Weatherford also insisted his company's armed vessels were a legitimate tool for vulnerable ships to protect themselves.
"We are no different to an armed security service protecting a building on land in any country," Weatherford said.
And despite the concerns surrounding the vessels, the IMO, BARS and Glenn Defense Marine all report that there have not yet been any armed conflicts between the patrol vessels and pirates.
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