Stand by to repel boarders. The high seas are bristling with latter- day Blackbeards, armed with a frightening array of hi-tech weaponry
Piracy is the street crime of the high seas and it is on the increase. According to the International Maritime Bureau, piracy attacks worldwide have almost doubled in recent years, from 107 incidents in 1991 to 202 in 1998, with losses now running at pounds 125m a year. So serious a problem is it that a Regional Piracy Centre, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - one of the worst-affected areas - was created in 1992. Today's buccaneers don't bother to hoist the Jolly Roger to let you know they're on their way - they attack with no warning, often arriving at night and in speedboats. They are highly organised, extremely violent, use an array of hi-tech weaponry and are increasingly bold. They will rob whatever they come across, from fishing catches to an entire oil tanker. If they think they can make more money by kidnapping the crew, they will do that too. Here are the current danger zones.

Malaysia

Small boats get raided so often by piratical gangs - who steal whatever is on board - that fishing vessels will only go out in parties of 10 or more. Fishermen are small-fry, however, and more profitable is the hijacking of oil tankers. In one recent instance, when pirates took over a Honduran tanker as it sailed off the Malaysian coast, they beat up the crew, stole their cash, then transferred the ship's gas-oil cargo to an unmarked tanker.

Brazil

Brazilian pirates are notoriously fond of guns. Pistol-packing buccaneers need to be careful, however. One false shot at the UK tanker Isomeria, which was attacked at the port of Santos, could have caused some serious fireworks, as it was discharging its cargo of liquid natural gas at the time. Attacks tend to happen while ships are in port, often in the bays around Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian coastguard is notoriously unreliable, and many radio calls for assistance are reportedly ignored.

Sri Lanka

When piracy meets politics things get nasty. Tamil Tigers attack almost any boat that sails too near to the rebel-held coast of Mullaittivu. If not killed, crew members are often held to ransom. Recently, nine Muslim fishermen were kidnapped and pounds 450 was demanded for each of them - three were released but the other six remain missing.

Somalia

Somali pirates are fond of mortars and grenades. The pirates often belong to one of the country's many warring factions and routinely take crew members hostage. Two French yachtsmen were kidnapped in June 1998. Only after being held for two months (their captors added "expenses" for their keep on to the ransom demand) were they finally freed.

Indonesia

Indonesia is a pirate's paradise. It is one of the world's busiest sea- trade routes and the narrow channels between the many small islands force ships to slow down, which makes them easy targets for raiders with quick motorboats. Commando-style attacks on tankers are common, and rather than robbing the ship's company and its cargo, they just dump the crew overboard and steal the whole ship.

Thailand

Thai pirates are notorious for what are called "phantom ships". They attack a tanker, throw the crew overboard and then sail it away. The same vessel then reappears a short time later, repainted and sporting a different name. The cargo will have been sold on the black market, and the ship can now be used again in various piratical outings.

Singapore

The Singapore Straits are experiencing a mini-boom in piracy. In January this year, the captain of the Panama tanker Nanshin was not only robbed of pounds 13,000, but also his clothes and Rolex watch. Attackers often clamber up the side of ships using the anchor chain. There are tales of certain angry and ingenious skippers wrapping their chains in nets covered with fish hooks, which seems to deter all but the hardiest assailants.

Philippines

Filipino pirates are notorious for killing at the slightest provocation. It is not unusual to find the bodies of unlucky fishermen floating to shore a few days after their boat has been reported missing. Frighteningly, passenger ships have now become targets too. In February 1997, Muslim fundamentalist raiders hijacked a Filipino ferry, killing three passengers.

Miami

American pirates, naturally, come with .45s and baseball caps. They target the small ships which travel along the narrow bayous of Florida and Louisiana. In many cases they attack from land, while ships are moored at boat-yards overnight. Crews are beaten and occasionally kidnapped, and attackers disappear with ease in their pick-up trucks.

Europe

European waters are not immune to latter-day Blackbeards. In September 1996, a luxury yacht moored off Corfu was boarded by four speedboat pirates. In the ensuing police-pirate gun battle, the yacht's owner was shot and killed. In August 1996, a similar attack took place off Calabria, Italy. Four men threatened a lifeguard on the beach with a pistol and stole a pedal-powered dinghy, which they used to rob a British yacht.

Nicaragua

The Caribbean is one of the oldest piratical stamping grounds, and today's booty is more lucrative than ever. The Nicaragua-Costa Rica border is a particular hotspot. Apart from the routine robbing of the local shrimping boats, many yachts and private boats in this area are hijacked by drug traffickers. After killing the crew, these boats are used to transport illegal cargoes. n

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