THE threat from pirates to British shipping is so great that UK-flagged vessels – including many that visit Southampton – will soon be able to employ armed guards as they navigate dangerous waters.

Shipping minister Mike Penning has indicated the Government is about to introduce new legislation which will change the present law and give the legal go-ahead for ships flying the red ensign to recruit armed guards.

Oil tankers, chemical carriers, container ships, and roll-on/roll-off vessels are increasingly being targeted by pirates, especially in sealanes close to the lawless state of Somalia.

Pirate attacks are also being reported off the coast of west Africa, Indonesia, the Singapore Straits and the South China Sea, where gangs armed with sophisticated automatic weapons and grenade-launchers, have boarded ships and taken crew members as hostage before demanding huge sums in ransom payments.

Merchant ships, the life-blood of the world economy, have already installed high-pressure water hoses to deter pirates, as well as sonic devices, originally developed for the US military, which send out a stream of ear-splitting noise in a concentrated beam, which can be aimed at intruders.

“Legislation will have to be changed to protect our seafarers around the world,’’ said the minister. “At present it is illegal to use armed guards on British ships, but we are where we are and I cannot ignore the situation.’’ The government believes the new regulations will regulate and control the recruitment of armed guards, and will stop any “cowboys’’ being allowed on board British ships.

Despite a naval task force patrolling near the Horn of Africa, Somali pirates have taken 361 sailors captive in the first six months of this year.