KUALA LUMPUR - Pirates who commandeered a Malaysian-flagged tanker in the South China Sea for a week have escaped from the vessel in a lifeboat, giving warships the slip under cover of night, the country's naval commander said Friday.
Royal Malaysian Navy chief Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar also said the 22 crew members of the MT Orkim Harmony were unscathed except for an Indonesian seamen who was being treated for a gunshot wound to the thigh.
"All eight robbers escaped by using the MT Orkim Harmony's lifeboats," Abdul Aziz said in a statement, adding that a range of Malaysian naval and coast guard assets were now searching for the pirates near Indonesia's Natuna Islands.
The vessel was the latest to be targeted by increasingly bold pirates behind an upsurge of sea hijackings in Southeast Asia in the past two years that have typically targeted smaller tankers carrying valuable petrol, diesel or gas oil.
The ship, with a cargo of about 6,000 tonnes of petrol worth an estimated 21 million ringgit (S$7.5 million), went missing June 11 en route from Malaysia's western coast to the port of Kuantan on the east coast.
The pirates were later found to have clumsily altered the ship's name to "Kim Harmon" by painting over the letters.
That failed to fool an air and sea search effort, which located the tanker near Vietnamese and Cambodian waters late Wednesday. Malaysian naval warships subsequently shadowed the ship, urging the pirates to surrender.
Abdul Aziz's statement gave no details on the hijackers' suspected nationality. He had earlier said they spoke with "Indonesian accents".
He said the pirates managed to slip away by ordering naval vessels to stay at least five nautical miles from the ship or the crew would be harmed.
The pirates also had warned the tanker's captain not to inform authorities of the escape, causing a five-hour delay in the official response, he added.
The London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has repeatedly warned that Southeast Asian waters were now the world's most piracy-prone, calling for decisive action by regional authorities to prevent the situation spiralling out of control.
Attacks on smaller coastal tankers like the MT Orkim Harmony are occurring roughly once every two weeks, the IMB said recently, with pirates usually syphoning off cargoes to other vessels before later releasing the tankers and crews.
The navy chief said the MT Orkim Harmony's cargo was intact and the tanker was being escorted to Kuantan by the navy.
Its crew includes 16 Malaysians, five Indonesians and a Myanmar national.
Southeast Asian waters saw 38 pirate attacks during January-March, or 70 percent of the global total of 54, the IMB said in April.
A scourge for centuries, piracy in Southeast Asia had been significantly reduced over the past decade thanks to stepped-up regional cooperation and maritime patrols, but has re-emerged.