Armed forces involved in raids

Shipowners have put governments under increasing pressure to tackle the problem of often murderous attacks by pirates who raid vulnerable vessels in treacherous waters.

But one of the greatest difficulties is that the pirates themselves have often been exposed as the armed forces or coastguards of countries where law and order has disintegrated through civil strife.

Since the International Maritime Bureau set up its anti-piracy co-ordination centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, three years ago, its information has forced a number of governments to act.

The bureau established that many of the attacks in the waters around Indonesia had been carried out by its armed forces, while the coastguards in the Philippines had also used sophisticated weapons to rob unprotected cargo ships.

Last year the official number of attacks on shipping was down slightly to about 106, though the bureau points to another 150 incidents in waters around the Philippines, more than 200 around China, and 28 near Vietnam, all of which went unreported.

In one attack off the coast of Indonesia in 1992, John Bashforth, the British captain of a freighter carrying mining equipment, was murdered when he refused to hand over the ship's cash. But the dangers that lurk in the waters of the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia commanded special attention in the bureau's latest bulletin from the Regional Piracy Centre.

Unlike the attack on the Longo Barda, the Somali pirates often represent themselves as the coastguard to persuade the captain of the vessel to allow them on board.

Failure to do so has been followed by radio warnings which have quickly escalated into the ship being strafed by machine-gun fire and the use of mortars, much the same technique as used against the British racing yacht.

Once the ship stops, the pirates hijack it for further use or simply steal the cargo with little danger of being caught and punished because of the continuing civil war.

Highlighting several incidents over the past year, including one last September when the MV Bonsella was hi-jacked by 26 pirates and then used in unsuccessful attempts to capture other ships, vessels were warned to be particularly alert when sailing through the area.

Eric Ellen, director of the bureau, said yesterday: "This latest attack on the yacht seems to bear all the hallmarks associated with the pirates operating in the area."

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