By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - Armed guards employed on merchant ships to repel attacks by pirates should be subject to new standards to ensure they abide by international law while on the high seas, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.
The International Maritime Organization, whose role is to improve the safety of global shipping, said it wanted a new set of global guidelines to be drawn up to help countries and shipping countries decide whether and how to deploy armed guards.
"International standards or regimes should be established," IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu told reporters.
"That regime should not be made compulsory, but provide an international framework on which the flag state and the (shipping) companies may decide to employ arms on board.
"This is not a permanent solution and arms on board will not be institutionalized. These are exceptional circumstances and we hope these are temporary measures," he said after an anti-piracy conference at the IMO's headquarters overlooking the River Thames in London.
Shipping companies are increasingly reliant on private guards to deter pirates armed with machine guns and rocket launchers who are prepared to take hostages and demand ransoms worth millions of dollars each year, particularly in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
Naval patrols by NATO, the European Union and others have failed to stop attacks by Somali pirates, prompting ship owners to look for different ways to protect their cargoes and crew.
Opponents of armed guards aboard merchant ships say their presence can escalate violence. There are also concerns about the guards' training and accountability, as well as uncertainty over their legal position if they kill suspected pirates.
The IMO said it needed to hold more talks before publishing guidelines on private guards. Many of the guards are former military personnel employed by UK companies.
"The measures that will be adopted ... are not above the law, they will all be in accordance with international and national law," said Rosalie Balkin, IMO assistant secretary-general and its director of legal affairs.
The difficulty of protecting ships was highlighted in February when Italian marines on a merchant vessel were accused of shooting dead two Indian fishermen they suspected of being pirates. India detained the marines, prompting a diplomatic row.
Alternatives to armed guards include trying to outrun pirates and using water hoses, barbed wire or non-lethal electric fences.
The threat was underlined earlier this month when Somali pirates hijacked a Greek-owned oil tanker carrying nearly one million barrels of oil in the Arabian Sea.
Days later, European helicopter gunships attacked a pirate base on the Somali coast, destroying five speedboats in the first attack by EU forces on its coastline.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)