Avast there! Pirates return to the high seas

British yachtsman's death in hijack attempt highlights rising tide of crime

The death of a man attempting to prevent hijackers stealing his yacht off the coast of Corfu highlights the growing problem of piracy for both re- creational and commercial shipping.

Keith Hedley, a British businessman, died on Thursday after being shot in a gun battle as his yacht was attacked by a group of Albanian pirates.

The attack is part of a growing trend documented by the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) whose director, Pottengal Mukundan, said: "In 1994, there were 90 recorded incidents and this went up to 170 last year and 87 in the first months of 1996." Incidents range from "maritime mugging", the theft of crew's belongings by people creeping on to a ship at night, to the wholesale capture of a large ship and its cargo. The most notorious area is South-east Asia, with 22 incidents off Indonesia alone this year, but piracy has also been reported frequently off West Africa and Brazil.

Recently, the IMB put out a circular alerting seafarers about a 45ft sloop which had been spotted in the bay of Sihanoukville harbour in Cambodia. The ship was occupied by squatters "who have rigged up crude awnings and a cooking area". However, the IMB suspects it has been taken over by pirates as the yacht "appears to have been very carefully prepared for a cruise around the world with the best equipment, including everything a yachtsman would want". The IMB, which set up a special anti-piracy unit in 1992, called for any information about the owners to be passed to them.

Mr Mukundan says that the most spectacular recent incident involved a cargo ship carrying 12,000 tons of sugar, worth pounds 3m, from Bangkok to Manila a year ago. The ship started its voyage as the Anna Sierra, registered in Cyprus, but after it was captured by pirates and the crew put to sea in life-rafts, it became the Arctic Sea under the Honduran flag. The pirates, who had Indonesian and Malaysian passports, had come armed not only with weapons but with the correct papers to change the identity of the ship.

Fortunately, the crew were picked up by Vietnamese fishermen and the ship was traced, to the southern Chinese port of Beihai. The hijacking of the Anna Sierra raises the problem of lack of co-ordination between nations and maritime authorities about tackling piracy because nearly a year later, the ship is still impounded by the Chinese authorities and no prosecution has yet been mounted against the pirates because of disputes over jurisdiction between the Cypriots and the Chinese.

There are a couple of cases each year of whole ships being hijacked and half a dozen where the complete cargo is taken. Many of these involve British ships or British officers and a British captain, John Bashforth, was shot dead in 1992 off the coast of Indonesia.

Numast, the merchant navy officers' union, deplores the lack of interest by the British authorities. Its spokesman, Andy Linington, said: "There must be better support from the diplomatic and consular services when these events occur because they are very traumatic. Nothing has been done about it since the tragic incident involving Capt Bashforth."

Mr Linington also called for the navy to be more prepared to protect British nationals: "The navy is helpful when a British ship involved, but will not intervene if a foreign-flagged vessel is involved, even if there are British officers or crew on it.

"Piracy is a growing problem and happens to all shipping, from yachts to supertankers."

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