Indonesian waters become centre of world piracy boom

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The Independent Online

Almost always they strike at night, when the watch is dozing and visibility is poor. The first sign might be the muffled buzz of an outboard motor, or the sound of grappling hooks on a ship's rails. By the time the alarm is raised, it is too late.

Almost always they strike at night, when the watch is dozing and visibility is poor. The first sign might be the muffled buzz of an outboard motor, or the sound of grappling hooks on a ship's rails. By the time the alarm is raised, it is too late.

A band of men, armed with guns and machetes, are already on board, tying up the captain and going through his cargo. If the crew are lucky, the strangers will take what they want and flee. If not, they will seize the ship and cast its sailors adrift in leaky boats. More than once in the past few years, they have gone further, executing entire crews and dumping their bodies overboard.

Pirates, far from being the stuff of black-and-white films and children's stories, are more active than ever. A report released yesterday by the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia revealed that pirate attacks increased by 40 per cent last year, and two-thirds of them took place in Asia. Economic crisis, corruption, ever-larger volumes of shipping and weak maritime policing have made South-east Asia the pirate centre of the world.

As Lua Cheng Eng, of the Asian Shipowners' Forum, says: "Piracy is arguably the single greatest menace to modern shipping today."

The typical 21st-century buccaneer is not a one-legged parrot fancier, but a young Indonesian working for a well-organised international syndicate. Of the record 285 acts of piracy recorded last year, 113 took place in Indonesian waters, and a further 31 in neighbouring Malaysia or in the strait that divides Singapore from Indonesia. The most recent big case was that of the Alondra Rainbow, a 9,000-ton ship carrying a cargo of aluminium ingots worth nearly $10m (£6m). After leaving the Indonesian port of Kuala Tanjung en route for Japan it was boarded on 22 October last year by 10 men armed with swords and pistols.

The tale of the Alondra Rainbow had a relatively happy ending. The crew of 17 Japanese and Filipinos were bound, blindfolded and cast adrift on a rubber liferaft in which they drifted for 11 days before being picked up by Thai fishermen.

The Indonesian pirates were captured a month later off Goa as they tried to scuttle the Alondra Rainbow. But theship's cargo has disappeared, almost certainly into the country notorious for its tolerance of suspicious ships and their cargoes, China. The countless anchorages in southern China, the corruption of its customs officials and the lackadaisical attitude of its courts have made it the favoured destination for marine hijackers.

In 1998, an oil tanker, the Petro Ranger, was seized by a dozen pirates who kidnapped its crew and siphoned off their cargo into two other tankers. After a Chinese patrol boat intercepted the tanker, the crew and its Australian captain found themselves detained for a month in Hainan Island, while the pirates were sent home to Indonesia, scot-free.

Less lucky were the 13 hijackers of the MV Cheung Son, who posed as Chinese police and boarded the ship just outside Hong Kong waters. The bodies of some of the 23 crewmen were found by fishermen, gagged, bullet-ridden and tied with weights. The pirates, all Chinese but for one Indonesian, were sentenced to death last month. But even when such killers are brought to justice, no one is under the illusion that they are the men ultimately responsible for the piracy. These are shadowy figures with ready capital and well-oiled organisations that re-register stolen ships and quickly sell on their cargoes.

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