Chinese military 'hijacked merchant ship'

Stephen Vines in Hong Kong reports on piracy claims over a freighter with a cargo worth $2m
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The merchant vessel Hye Mieko, alleged by its Singaporean owners to have been seized by Chinese military personnel in Cambodian waters, has arrived in the Chinese port of Shanwei, the owners say.

"The ship has been found in Shanwei," William Tay, manager of HM Shipping and Trading, told Reuters from southern China. He said he was unsure why the ship, which had been travelling from Singapore to Cambodia, had arrived in the Chinese port, 100kms (62 miles) from Hong Kong, or what would happen next. "I'm confused also," he said. "I am planning to go there."

The freighter left Singapore on 21 June for Kas Kong, Cambodia, where it was due to arrive last Saturday. The shipowners tracked the vessel's progress by jet and found it to be heading for southern China, far from the Cambodian waters where it last made radio contact. The Royal Navy in Hong Kong, asked to look out for it, concluded the Hye Mieko had reached its destination without passing through Hong Kong waters. The South China Sea is infamous for piracy.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said ''it was not justified'' to accuse members of China's armed forces of hijacking the ship and stated that no report of the incident had been received in Peking.

But Mr Tay described the incident as ''pure daylight robbery''. He was trying to get to Shanwei to find both the ship and its cargo of cigarettes and photographic equipment valued at $2m (pounds 1.28m).

This is not the first time that Chinese security officials have been accused of acts of piracy. ''There are many instances where there is a strong suspicion of Chinese security officials being involved,'' a naval officer in Hong Kong said yesterday.

The attack on the Hye Mieko is remarkably similar to another on the Alicia Star more than a year ago. It, too, was carrying cigarettes out of Singapore and its hijacking was reported to have been carried out by men in green uniforms carrying AK-47 assault rifles. The Alicia Star was subsequently discovered in the port of Shanwei.

The Hong Kong authorities are nervous about pointing the finger of blame at Chinese military personnel for the many instances of piracy in the South China Sea. However, the colony's Security Branch recently told legislators there had been 81 reported instances of unauthorised incursions by Chinese military vessels in Hong Kong waters from 1990 to 1994. Although they are not classified as acts of piracy, shipping sources in Hong Kong confirm that many of these incursions have involved maritime theft.

China's refusal to acknowledge the problem of piracy among its customs, police and navy is worrying local ship owners who are at a loss as to where to turn for either the prevention of piracy or redress.

China is not alone in having blame directed at its military officers for acts of piracy. There are regular reports of Indonesian security forces being involved in criminal maritime activity in the waters surrounding Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Ship owners in the region and the International Maritime Bureau, which has a piracy monitoring centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are frustrated by the reluctance of governments to pursue accusations of piracy against the security forces of neighbouring countries.

The publicity given to acts of piracy has resulted in some diminution of attacks recently. The Hong Kong authorities have noted only two Chinese incursions in local waters this year.