KUALA LUMPUR - The MT Orkim Harmony tanker has been hijacked not by pirates but by amateurs who appear to have bitten off more than they can chew.
Navy chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar said the eight pirates now in control of the tanker were practically begging the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) to just let them go.
Calling them "part-timers on a maiden voyage", he said: "We asked for their demands and all they want is for us to give them a boat, water and food, and to let them leave. But we can't do that."
Armed with pistols and parang, the pirates said they would not harm the 22 crew if their demands were met.
The hostage-takers also said they have no more interest in the cargo - 6,000 metric tonnes of RON95 petrol, valued at RM21mil (S$7.55 million) - or the ship.
The crew of KD Terengganu, an RMN patrol vessel, that was shadowing the tanker in Vietnam waters yesterday, helped by an RMN Super Lynx helicopter, are in radio contact with the pirates.
Abdul Aziz said his men reported that the pirates spoke with an Indonesian accent and sounded timid.
"It looks like they are part-timers on their maiden voyage into the world of piracy," he said.
The pirates also proved to be amateurish in their attempt to disguise the tanker. They hurriedly painted out several letters of its name on the bow and stern.
"Orkim Harmony" was changed to "Kim Harmon" and the ship's registration number was painted out.
But the pirates left the name of its port of registry, Port Kelang, intact.
The clumsy attempt failed to fool the crews of the search assets.
The KD Terengganu reported that the tanker was now just drifting in the sea.
"We don't know why. They just suddenly stopped. That makes it easier for us to track them," said Abdul Aziz.
He said that Cmdr Ee Chee Kiong of the KD Terengganu also spoke with the captain of the Orkim Harmony who told him that no crew member had been harmed.
Abdul Aziz said that if the pirates were to leave in a boat now, it would take them roughly eight hours to make landfall in Vietnam about 175km away.
The National Security Council will take over negotiations with the pirates soon, he added.
The cargo belongs to Petronas while the ship's owner is Magna Meridian Sdn Bhd.
Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) deputy director-general Vice-Admiral (Maritime) Datuk Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar said there was no time frame for the negotiations.
"But we don't want it to take too long," he said at a press conference in Putrajaya yesterday.
He said the main concern was for the safety of the crew, adding that at this stage, the authorities wanted to negotiate a peaceful end to the situation.
Ahmad Puzi did not rule out the possibility of the RMN launching an assault but he hoped that it would not come to that.
The tanker left Malacca on June 11 and was to arrive at the Kuantan Port at 10.30am the next day but communications were lost at 8.57pm.
The MMEA said it was notified at 6.30am the next day that the tanker was missing. Assets from the RMN, MMEA and Royal Malaysian Air Force were sent to hunt for it.