Buccaneers still plague seas: Will Bennett looks at the international resurgence of an infamous maritime crime

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PIRACY conjures up images of old-world buccaneers sailing under the skull and crossbones to plunder Spanish gold. But for today's sea captains, it is not something out of the history books.

In the past 10 years there has been an alarming resurgence of a crime which seemed to have been eliminated. Hundreds of ships have been boarded and cash, valuables and even entire cargos stolen. Crew members have been injured and sometimes murdered.

Nowhere is this danger more acute than in the 520-mile-long Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia, which is only 11 miles wide at its southern end. It is the main seaway connecting the Indian Ocean with the China Sea and 30,000 ships a year pass through it.

This maritime bottleneck is perfect for pirates in high-speed boats to race out at night, board cargo ships from the stern and pounce, sometimes before crew members know the vessel has been invaded. In 1991, more than 200 such incidents were recorded.

The situation became so bad that the International Maritime Organisation, a United Nations agency, set up a special working group to look at piracy in the Strait. Its report this year recommended that ships should no longer carry large cash sums, that crews should develop an action plan on what to do if attacked, and the doubling of watches and lookouts in danger areas. Seamen's unions have criticised the suggestions as unrealistic when ships' owners are cutting crew numbers to save money.

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