UK leads attack on piracy

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Five major criminal gangs have taken control of one of the world's most profitable enterprises - piracy.

Five major criminal gangs have taken control of one of the world's most profitable enterprises - piracy.

More than 1,000 ships were attacked in the first six months of this year, the British Government believes. The pirates rape, rob, take hostages and kill. Now, under pressure from the major oil and shipping companies, the Government is working with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to draw up a strategy to make the seas safer.

The official figures tell only a fraction of the story. Between January and June this year there were 161 attacks - up from 115 in the same period last year. But experts are convinced that no more, and probably considerably less, than one in four attacks are reported.

Peter Hain, the Foreign Office Minister, has been put in charge of the operation and is lobbying countries to take more effective action against piracy and armed robbery in the waters off their shores.

Mr Hain said last night: "The popular image of pirates, like Long John Silver, is a romantic one. But it's actually pretty vicious stuff."

Piracy attacks, he said, fell into two categories: "mugging at sea" and "shipjacking". "Sometimes what they do to ships is capture the crew and be very nasty to them, including violence, rape and murder. Sometimes they leave the ship drifting in the sea, which makes it a very serious hazard to international waterways," Mr Hain said.

Some of the attacks have been carried out at random against pleasure sailors taking yachts out in the Caribbean.

In "shipjacking" cases, he said: "They seize the vessels and their cargo, rename the ship and sell the cargo on, and that leads to the problem of phantom ships."

Some incidents have involved the hijacking of large vessels such as oil tankers, worth millions of pounds, whose cargo, if not protected, poses a huge threat to the environment.

Half of the attacks this year have been in Indonesian waters and the Malacca Straits, and piracy is increasingly concentrated in south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean.

There are worrying indications that crimes on the seas are being organised by criminal gangs working across borders. Information obtained by the IMO suggests that there are five gangs operating in the Far East and south-east Asia. Much of the problem off the coast of China is thought to be the work of triads.

Mr Hain said: "It is big business. The attacks on sailors, ships and their cargoes are increasing. It is big gang warfare really."

But piracy is threatening legitimate trade stability.

"One of the reasons why Britain is taking a lead on this is that shipping companies and oil companies who are at risk are pressing us very hard on it," Mr Hain said. "There is a big international focus on drugs and terrorism and crime but on piracy there has not been the same kind of profile and this has got to be a big issue for international stability."

The Foreign Office is now determined to play a leading role in alerting the world to the problem. Contacts with officials in Brazil, China, India and the Philippines have led to some improvements.

There are now permanent security guards at the ports in Rio and Santos. China is introducing tough sentences for people found guilty of piracy. And in November last year, the Indian navy arrested the pirates who hijacked the Alondra Rainbow and its multi-million dollar cargo of aluminium ingots.

But the British Government has now vowed to "redouble its efforts to get a global solution to this international scourge".