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Attacked, robbed, injured and killed…

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Over 70 seafarers were murdered at sea at the hands of criminal gangs last year, a horrifying rise on the number killed the year before. At last the international community is beginning to take notice.

There have always been gangs of marauding pirates ready to attack innocent seafarers, stealing whatever they can on board. But recent reports show an alarming rise in both the number of attacks and an increase in the levels of violence, particularly in the world’s biggest blackspots, the coastline of Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca.

Pirates are better armed, have faster boats, and many believe they now form part of sophisticated criminal gangs able to use fully the lax regulations of flags of convenience to re-register hijacked ships.

According to figures from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), attacks rose by 57 per cent in 2000 and were four times the level recorded in 1991.

“The violence used in the attacks also rose to new levels, with 72 seafarers killed and 99 injured in 2000, up from three killed and 24 injured the previous year. Ships were boarded in 307 instances and a total of eight ships were hijacked,” says the IMB in its latest annual report.

The ITF has been at the forefront of efforts to put pressure on coastal states to eliminate the problem and was instrumental in having the issue of piracy discussed at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The General Assembly, at its meeting on 30 October 2000, concluded with a resolution urging member states to prevent and combat piracy and armed robbery at sea, and to bring perpetrators to justice. It called on states to co-operate fully with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and to become parties to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation and its protocol.

The international community has been urged to assist developing countries, and particularly small island developing states, to ensure they have the necessary technical capacities and skills to implement the convention.

Piracy (on the open sea) and armed robbery (while in or close to port) was again on the agenda of a major UN meeting scheduled for May 2001, with the aim of encouraging countries to offer material support, such as patrol boats and equipment to combat pirate attacks.

Indonesia recorded the highest number of attacks in 2000, accounting for almost one quarter of the world total with 119 incidents. These included the boarding of 86 ships, two ship hijacks and attempted attacks on another 31 ships. The seas around Indonesia also experienced the greatest violence, with many pirates armed with knives. The IMB says there are no signs the number of attacks will drop unless Indonesia takes serious steps to address the problem.
Among other world hotspots, the Strait of Malacca witnessed a dramatic rise in attacks, up to 75 from two in 1999, despite the efforts of the Malaysian Marine Police to step up patrols in the area to tackle the problem. Its special task force captured two groups of pirates, but there are still known to be several other groups attacking and robbing ships as they transit this busy waterway. The Marine Police have ordered 15 high powered patrol boats, capable of speeds up to 40 knots and worth some M$8m (US$2.1m) for delivery next year.

Third place in the IMB’s 2000 table goes to Bangladesh, with 55 attacks, more than double the 25 attacks recorded in 1999. The Bangladeshi authorities have since taken action of their own, which resulted in a drop in attacks during the latter part of the year. One of the few areas to see a downturn in activity was the Strait of Singapore (five incidents, down from 14).

Ship hijacks need the most sophisticated organisation and are most likely to be the hallmark of well financed crime gangs. Captain Pottengal Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau recently told Lloyd’s List: “They now hijack loaded vessels, steal the cargo and then operate them as phantom ships until the vessel is eventually identified and seized or scrapped.”

The hijackers usually operate from a mother vessel and approach the target ship from a fast boat. The innocent ship’s crew are attacked and transferred to the mother vessel or set adrift on a ship’s raft. The pirates may then apply to register the ship through the local consulate of a flag of convenience state.

Captain Mukundan recalled a recent case where an Indian coastguard patrol in the Bay of Bengal spotted a vessel falsely flying the Belize flag. The ship refused to stop and a naval corvette was sent out, firing on the ship 280 miles off the coast, outside territorial waters. The pirate crew attempted to scuttle the ship, setting her on fire before 15 Indonesians were arrested.

China sentenced 13 pirates to death last year for the murder of the 23-strong crew of the Cheung Son after hijacking the Hong Kong-owned freighter as she sailed near the Taiwan Strait in November 1998. The crew were killed and then their weighted bodies thrown overboard in one of the most brutal pirate attacks.

Meanwhile the Japanese government has become concerned about the level of attacks on its shipping in the Far East and has raised the idea of joint regional patrols to combat piracy. It hosted a meeting of regional coast guards to discuss anti-piracy measures.

The work of the IMB has been supported by the ITF, including a grant from the ITF Seafarers’ Trust of US$110,000 in 1998 to fund a two-year follow-up scheme for the Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur. The Centre is now recognised throughout the maritime industry for its valuable contribution in quantifying the problem of world piracy and providing assistance, free of charge, to ships that have been attacked.

Contact: ICC – International Maritime Bureau, Maritime House, 1 Linton Road, Barking, Essex IG11 8HG, UK.
Tel: +44 (20) 8591 3000. Fax: +44 (20) 8594 2833.


Kept hostage for 15 days and cast adrift

The South Korean and Burmese crew of the Global Mars were lucky to escape with their lives after the tanker was boarded by 20 pirates armed with automatic rifles last year.

All 17 crew and the master were kept hostage for 15 days following the attack on the ship off the coast of Thailand. They were set adrift in a small boat which eventually landed on an island off Phuket four days later.

Crews of other hijacks have been beaten and killed, but those from the Global Mars were unharmed after their ordeal.

The Japanese-owned, Panamanian-registered ship was carrying 6,000 tonnes of palm oil on a voyage to India when it was attacked at the northern approaches to the Strait of Malacca.

A reward of US$100,000 was offered for the recovery of the missing ship before it was discovered three months later by a Hong Kong government aircraft anchored off the Dagan Islands, near Zhuhai, China.

The ship, which had been renamed Bulawan, was returned by the Chinese authorities and 20 pirates – 11 Filipinos and nine Burmese – were arrested by the Chinese navy. Arms and ammunition were found on board.

Cut with a machete

The pirate attack on the Tiger Bridge last year was all too familiar. The ship, operated by Singapore-based Bengal Tiger Lines, was boarded in the early hours of the morning in the Strait of Malacca.

The duty officer was captured and handcuffed and he was asked to telephone the master. When the master arrived and opened the door, he was attacked with a machete, receiving a deep cut to his left hand.

The pirates later escaped with some US$23,000 in cash and equipment.

Related pages:
Piracy: Inside the Issues | Coping with Piracy


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