Mutiny feared on 'hijack' freighter

HONOLULU - Some of the crew of a Panamanian-registered ship may have mutinied after their operation to smuggle Chinese to the United States went sour, US Coast Guard officials said. They said they doubted first reports that the cargo vessel was hijacked but said on Saturday that a Coast Guard team on board was getting conflicting stories and encountering language problems.

An armed party of Coast Guard personnel from the Honolulu- based cutter Rush boarded the 310ft East Wood 1,500 miles south- west of Hawaii on Friday in response to a series of radio distress calls, starting on 27 January, that the vessel had been hijacked.

The master of the ship told the coastguards that he and his nine crewmembers feared for their lives at the hands of 'bad men' who were among 527 Chinese nationals on board the ship, said Rear-Admiral William C Donnell, commander of the 14th Coast Guard District, on Saturday.

Only a few pocket knives and a machete were found when the ship was searched for weapons, officials said. Two members of the crew, the radio operator and the second engineer, appeared to be missing, Rear-Admiral Donnell said. Earlier reports said they may have sabotaged the ship's engineering equipment to disable the vessel before jumping overboard in life jackets.

The Rush's commanding officer, Capt Al Doty, reported that the East Wood's captain and a man identified variously as a passenger and the ship's chief steward had a violent argument after the captain accused the other man of being the hijack leader.

There is strong evidence that it was a large-scale smuggling operation of aliens, and that 'the alleged hijacking took place when the master of the East Wood failed to meet the expectations of its chartering company', Rear-Admiral Donnell said.

The ship's owner, East Wood Shipping Company of Hong Kong, had chartered the bulk carrier to an unidentified party who apparently put the Chinese nationals on board soon after the ship left Hong Kong for Taiwan on 29 December, officials said. 'If this is an indication of things to come, we've got a real problem on our hands,' the Rear-Admiral said.

Three ships attempting to smuggle Chinese immigrants into the United States were intercepted in Hawaiian waters last year.

The East Wood was without safety equipment, and there were no toilet facilities for the nearly 400 passengers housed in the ship's two cargo holds, Rear-Admiral Donnell said. Another 147 passengers, who had apparently paid more money, were housed in rooms in the ship's pilot house. All the passengers were in good health, Capt Doty reported.