Maritime mafia rules the waves: A mysterious silence conceals the growing epidemic of robberies by marauding pirates. Cal McCrystal reports

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Consider the following. A cargo vessel is boarded at night by armed pirates with ropes and grappling hooks. They take over the ship when the crew scatters and hides. The British captain sends an SOS but passing ships, refuse to sail to his rescue, claiming they are defenceless against the marauders. On shore, the authorities ignore his appeal. The captain is then murdered. His first officer, a Filipino, puts up a fight and is also murdered. The pirates scramble overboard with the crew's valuables and sail off in a small, high-powered craft. They are never caught.

A big story? Such an incident did occur in December, but probably because it was off Indonesia and not in the English Channel, this act of piracy merited only a few lines in our national newspapers. The captain, John Bashforth, and the first officer of the Danish freighter Baltimar Zephir died on the way to Singapore with a cargo of Australian mining equipment.

It was not an isolated incident. There is a piracy epidemic in Asian, African and Latin American waters. Just four weeks after the Baltimar Zephir attack, the East Wood, a 310ft Panamanian- registered freighter sailing from Hong Kong to Taiwan with 500 Chinese passengers, was seized by 30 pirates, wielding machetes, and taken towards Hawaii, 2,500 miles away, where the passengers (each having paid the pirates between pounds 10,000 and pounds 15,000) aimed to enter the United States as illegal immigrants. The plan was frustrated only after the radio officer managed to alert the US coastguard.

In the past two years there have been nearly 300 reported piracy attacks, but the real total was probably twice that. Maritime experts say some ships do not report piracy, either to avoid delays caused by police inquiries (it costs pounds 16,000 a day to keep an ocean- going commercial vessel in port) or to preserve a reputation for invulnerability. A new maritime mafia is behind the epidemic, preying on commercial shipping of all nationalities with commando precision and impunity. Leaders often direct raids from plush city offices, with the collusion of port officials and advance knowledge of valuable cargoes.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), with headquarters in London, set up a piracy monitoring centre last year in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. The bureau recruited informers from the pirate gangs, relaying tip-offs about planned attacks to shipping companies. Even so, Eric Ellen, the bureau's director, believes the battle has hardly begun. An apparent reduction in acts of piracy this year, he says, has coincided with an increase in the ferocity of attacks. The shipping industry and the nations in which the pirates find sanctuary (among them Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines) have displayed a puzzling inertia. The British Government last week advised shipowners to use fire hoses to ward off the boarders - hardly an adequate weapon.

The IMB was set up in 1981 with the help of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN agency based in London. Some of the latter's 1992 reports are blood-curdling.

Off the Angolan capital of Luanda, 'the pirates approach their targets in a small wooden boat, which they propel with one oar. In most cases, they moor this boat under the bow of the vessel before boarding, carrying an assortment of knives, 9mm pistols and AK-47 assault rifles. After disabling all communication equipment on board, the attackers generally steal clothes, watches, jewellery, cash and personal effects from the cabins of the master and senior officers'.

The master and a messboy of a coastal tanker were shot at, many of the crew were beaten with rifle- butts and the living quarters were 'wilfully and mindlessly smashed'. The pirates used one of the lifeboats to help transport their booty.

A ship anchored off Rio de Janeiro was boarded by a dozen heavily armed men who killed the officers, wounded two other seafarers and escaped with just pounds 500. Brazil, it seems, has the most piratical Latin American coastline (one shipper of containers to and from the port of Santos hires an armed security guard which boasts of having shot dead at least 14 pirates), but Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Ecuador also report serious piracy.

Last August, the Panamanian- flagged World Bridge, carrying a highly explosive cargo of gasoil and kerosene, was in the Luzon Strait, north of the Philippines, when 15 pirates, claiming to be members of the Chinese navy, peppered the ship with automatic weapons and ordered it to stop. When the captain refused, they opened fire again and hurled firecracker explosives on to the deck. The tanker kept going and the pirates departed, leaving 50 bullet holes in the superstructure.

Four months earlier, the Valiant Carrier, laden with fuel oil, was attacked off the Indonesian coast by pirates, who lobbed Molotov cocktails on to the deck. While the crew fought the fire, 12 marauders clambered out of three speedboats and on to the ship, beating and slashing the crew members with parangs (Malay knives), severely wounding a deck officer and injuring the captain's seven-month-old daughter.

Sometimes the pirates seize ship and cargo. In August 1991, 25 pirates with M-16 rifles hijacked the container ship Springstar off the coast of Malaysia, shot dead the chief officer and dumped him overboard. They locked up the crew for two days and offloaded nearly dollars 2m worth of electronic goods - to be 'laundered' later, it is thought, in Singapore.

So why do brutal ship seizures command so little public attention? The modern notion of piracy as something romantic and glamorous comes from the Barbary Corsairs, Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Elizabeth I's encouragement of piratical attacks on Spanish gallions. Yet this does not explain today's low-key reaction to murder, robbery and fraud on the high seas, and the complicity of some onshore authorities.

Brigadier Brian Parritt, a former British Army intelligence officer who runs International Marine Securities from a converted chicken shed near Ashford, Kent, insists that the number of attacks is 'indisputably going up worldwide'. He says: 'There is an increase in ruthlessness and sophistication, making piracy a well- organised criminal activity.

The pirates have a good distribution system and exploit the sensitive issue of sovereignty, which prevents governments from setting up joint naval protection forces. This was a role the Royal Navy once had. Now there's no naval superpower to fill the vacuum. 'You can't simply arm the ships, or there would be a firefight - with pirates using bazookas. Yet insurance rates continue to be pushed up and there is increasing pressure from (ships') masters for something to be done.'

Much of this pressure is channelled through the Nautical Institute in London, which represents 6,000 British mariners. Julian Parker, the secretary, believes that the problem should go before the UN Security Council, 'if only to force countries such as Indonesia to face up to what is happening'. Some of Indonesia's armed forces are suspected of moonlighting as pirates.

'These are not simple fishermen,' Mr Parker says. 'They use fast patrol boats and rigid inflatables. With ex-Soviet and other weaponry, they don't have to rely on machetes anymore. It's an absolute jungle out there.'

At the IMB, Mr Ellen seems to be almost in despair about his task. The bureau's monitoring centre in Kuala Lumpur was set up partly with contributions from big shipping lines ( pounds 3,200 would provide a 24-hour information service).

Covering his face with his hands, he says: 'One oil company, whose tankers had been subjected to many pirate attacks, promised to contribute pounds 12,800 to the centre, but never paid up. When we reminded them a couple of times, they didn't even reply.' His bureau has raised barely half the pounds 130,000 it needed to open the centre, even though piracy in south-east Asian waters is costing banks, insurers and shipping lines an average of pounds 32m a year.

Meanwhile, some shipowners are turning their vessels into fortresses, with extra watches, bars on windows and doors, flare-guns at hand, even 'dummy' crew positioned aft like scarecrows to frighten off intruders. Occasionally, the crew triumphs. In a recent incident, pirates completed their raid by grabbing a new hawser from the deck of a freighter and making one end fast to their departing speedboat. But a member of the freighter's crew quickly hooked the other end to a ship's bollard and the pirates' boat was torn apart.

These are small victories. 'Some gangs hijack ships to order, throw the crew overboard, obtain false registration papers from Singapore or Bangkok, change the names and call-signs, pick up cargoes, sell them, repeat the process, then sell or sink the vessels,' Mr Ellen says. 'The industry has minimised piracy for too long. Many attacks on oil tankers are not reported because the owners don't want to be seen as inefficient or insecure.'

The IMO is sending a task- force to South-east Asia to prepare a report intended to alert the world to the piracy epidemic. But Mr Ellen suspects that 'this terrible trouble', because it seems geographically remote, will not become a big story in the West. 'What a song and dance there'd be if these things were happening in the English Channel,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)