More hijackings in troubled Asian waters

More hijackings in troubled Asian waters

Pirates have so far this year hijacked 13 vessels in Asian waters.

Compare this to last year, where there were only three reported cases, so this is a worrying trend, said Mr Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

A violent attack occurred in the South China Sea on Dec 7 when armed pirates boarded a Vietnamese-registered tanker, robbed its crew and killed a sailor.

"These hijacking incidents are not normal," Mr Choong told The New Paper in a telephone interview.

"Asian pirates usually abort their attempts when the alarm is sounded by the crew. We hope this is not the beginning of a violent type of piracy."

Syndicates could earn more than US$2 million (S$2.63 million) from such hijackings.

Mr Choong urged governments to continue the fight against piracy.

"If we don't cap the problem before it becomes rampant, then syndicates will continue to hijack ships. That was how (piracy in) Somalia started," he said.

This year, the IMB has sought the help of Interpol over the rise in hijackings.

Equally of concern is a report in The Straits Times on Dec 11 which cited figures from the ReCAAP Information-Sharing Centre.

ReCAAP, which stands for Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, is the first regional government-to-government agreement to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery in Asia.

It stated that there were 169 actual or attempted attacks in Asian waters from January to November 2014, surpassing total-year figures in the last five years.

In contrast, IMB's January to September 2014 figures for long-time pirate-infested waters off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden each saw single-digit numbers of actual or attempted attacks.

Should ships plying regional waters be worried? Maybe not, Dr Sam Bateman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies maintained.

His paper, titled "Piracy in Southeast Asia - The Current Situation", argues that numbers are inflated when "a very minor incident of petty theft from a ship at anchor counts as one attack equivalent to a major incident".

ReCAAP also stated that there were 71 cases of petty theft at sea from January to November, while IMB's piracy report for January to September revealed that 72 cases of actual or attempted attacks occurred in Indonesian waters - of which 48 happened to vessels that were anchored or berthed.

DIFFERENT

Nevertheless, pirates in regional waters differ from those in Somalia.

Said Dr Bateman in an e-mail reply: "The Somali pirates could succeed largely because they had secure anchorages where they could hold ships and their crews until ransoms were paid. 'Hit-and-run' raids are all that's possible in South-east Asian waters - or holding vessels at sea for a few days at most."

So to deter attacks altogether, why not employ armed guards?

The Security Association for the Maritime Industry said armed guards on vessels have been a "pivotal part of the shipping industry's efforts to mitigate the effect of piracy off Somalia".

Said its maritime director, Mr Steven Jones: "No vessel with armed guards on board has been hijacked... It (armed protection) forms the third component of a triangle of responses - the other two being shipboard management and naval presence."

But hired guns are not cheap.

An 18-year veteran master mariner dealing with ship-borne security issues told TNP that it costs around US$4,000 a day for a team of four armed guards on an 18-day voyage.

The master, who wanted to be known only as Mr Muhammad, said other fees include flying in the marshals and transporting their equipment to the ship.

"Unless, we're sailing in African waters, there's no need for them," Mr Muhammad, who is in his 40s, said.

Said Colonel (retired) Vernon Wee of Universal Maritime Solutions which offers sea marshalling services: "People are saying since (there are less reports of piracy in Somalian waters), why not reduce the number of guards from four to three to two."

His subordinates report that at every opportunity, pirates in African waters will "test" whether there are armed guards on board.

Added Col Wee: "There's still a need for sea marshals because when there's a pirate attack, help may be far away. The armed guards are not just for show because they're real protection."

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