22 September 2009

Piracy in Singapore waters

Piracy hit a five-year high in the South China Sea, with 10 reports of sea attacks reported there so far this year, surpassing the previous record of nine in 2005.

Sea robbers have also been active in the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Singapore. Pirates have boarded ships on five occasions so far this year and made an attempted boarding once.

The situation in this part of the world is still a far cry from the escalating violence in the Gulf of Aden.

Pirates striking in Asia mostly wanted cash, ropes and spare parts from vessels.

Sea piracy hits five-year high in waters near Singapore
Worst-affected vessels are tankers and large container ships
Jermyn Chow, Straits Times 21 Sep 09;
THE waters in and around Singapore have become more dangerous for ships this year.

Piracy hit a five-year high in the South China Sea, with 10 reports of sea attacks reported there so far this year, surpassing the previous record of nine in 2005.

Sea robbers have also been active in the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Singapore. Pirates have boarded ships on five occasions so far this year and made an attempted boarding once.

Over the same period in these two waterways last year, pirates pulled off only one attack and made three attempts.

The figures come from the ReCAAP Information-Sharing Centre, which noted that the worst-hit vessels have been oil tankers and large container ships.

ReCAAP stands for Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia.

Ms Lee Yin Mui, ReCAAP's assistant director of research, added that bandits often hijack and take hostages on board the more vulnerable and slow-moving tugboats.

In the 10 incidents in the South China Sea, pirates boarded the ship nine times and made one attempted boarding.

In the most recent attack, six pirates armed with knives and machetes boarded the Singapore-registered liquified petroleum gas tanker Prospect off Anambas Island in the South China Sea early on Saturday.

They clubbed the duty officer on the head and escaped with cash, cellphones and laptop computers.

Apart from the officer, who was bruised, the other members of the 20-strong crew - Indian nationals and Filipinos - were unhurt.

Ms Lee told The Straits Times that the surge in such attacks in the South China Sea and neighbouring waterways was 'disconcerting' because it laid waste to the impression that piracy is on the decline in Asian waters.

The latest figures from ReCAAP indicate that the number of reported cases has fallen over the last five years, from 148 in 2005 to 96 last year.

Between January and last month, the anti-piracy centre received 57 reports of sea attacks or robberies in Asia.

The situation in this part of the world is still a far cry from the escalating violence in the Gulf of Aden.

The London-based International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur has logged 156 attacks there so far this year.

But Ms Lee, 48, a former army officer, noted that the buccaneers striking in Asia were not driven by bloodlust. They mostly wanted cash, ropes and spare parts from vessels, she said.

She cautioned, however, that although the economy seemed to be on the mend, pirates or sea robbers would still be on the lookout for vulnerable vessels.

'If shippers let their guard down, they will just be encouraging pirates to strike.'

For its part, ReCAAP is already in talks with the governments of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to keep them updated regarding the surge in attacks.

The navies of these four countries, which form the Malacca Strait Patrol, will be beefing up their watch over their waters.

ReCAAP, formed by 15 nations - including the above four and China, Japan, South Korea, Norway and India - will also streamline its reporting and strengthen its information-sharing capabilities.

This will ensure that member countries can quickly despatch their navy or Police Coast Guards to break up sea conflicts.

Mr Joshua Ho, a senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said countries bordering the South China Sea should also consider forming a patrol group similar to the Malacca Strait Patrol.

They include Japan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, among others. These countries now limit their patrols to approved maritime boundaries.

Mr Ho said: 'Some sort of joint effort is feasible and the security presence would make pirates think twice before striking.'

South China Sea new base for pirates’ operations
The Star 23 Sep 09;
KUALA LUMPUR: Increased naval patrols in the Malacca Straits have forced pirates in Asia to move their operations to the South China Sea, where the number of attacks on ships is at a five-year high, an official said yesterday.

Regional Cooperation Agree-ment on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP)’s Amy Fang said that at least 10 ships had been attacked in the area so far this year, the latest on Saturday when six pirates boarded a Singapore-registered liquefied petroleum gas tanker.

The attackers assaulted the duty officer and robbed the ship’s crew, she said.

Fang said it was “worrying” that 10 attacks had taken place with more than three months still to go this year, compared to nine attacks in the whole of 2005.

“The pirates seem to have heavier weapons than before, and are attacking ships rather than just threatening the crew,” she said.

The Singapore-based ReCAAP is an information-sharing group sponsored by 17 countries in the region to fight piracy.

She said the increased piracy in the South China Sea seemed to be the result of greater security in Malacca Straits, which was once one of the most pirate-infested sea lanes in the world.

“But the waterway is virtually free of the problem now, thanks to joint patrolling and intelligence sharing by Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.

“Only two pirate attacks were reported in the Malacca Straits in 2008 and one hijacking this year, compared to seven attacks in 2007.

According to ReCAAP, a total of 38 ships were attacked in Asia in the first six months of the year, of which eight were hijacked while the remaining were robbed on high seas.

Of the eight hijackings, seven were in South China Sea. — AP

'Your money, not your life'
Pirates are mainly fishermen who attack ships for cash: Experts
Mavis Toh, Straits Times 27 Sep 09;
They are fishermen living in poverty-stricken coastal villages. They work in groups of up to seven, travel in souped-up sampans and prey on slow-moving ships.

They wear masks and carry parangs and knives. They covet cash, mobile phones, ropes, paint and even shoes.

That's the profile of a typical pirate who scours the seas around Singapore.

'Most of them are really poor and need the money,' said Dr Eric Frecon, a Singapore-based academic specialising in piracy studies.

It was recently reported that piracy in the South China Sea hit a five-year high. There have been 10 reports of sea attacks there so far this year, surpassing the previous record of nine for the whole of 2005.

Pirates have also been active in the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Singapore.

They have boarded ships on five occasions so far this year, and made one attempted boarding.

Last year, they boarded six ships and tried to board four.

In February, MLC Nancy 5, a Singapore-flagged tugboat towing a barge, was en route to Singapore from Mumbai when it was attacked.

Twelve pirates armed with rifles boarded the boat near Penang in the Strait of Malacca and stole the crew's valuables and the ship's navigational and communication equipment.

They also abducted the boat master and chief engineer. The two Indonesians were released several days later, after a ransom was believed to have been paid.

But kidnapping incidents like this are rare in Asian waters. There were four such cases in 2007 and 2005, one in 2006 and 14 in 2004.

Mr Nicholas Teo, deputy director of anti-piracy group ReCAAP, said: 'In Asian waters, pirates are mostly opportunists who come on board, take whatever they can and go. They are not out to kill.'

ReCAAP stands for Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia.

Experts said the pirates who roam the seas near Singapore can be grouped into three types.

Most are poor fishermen and villagers who strike at passing ship for extra cash. Another group are military personnel who abuse their powers, and a third are well-organised syndicates hijacking big vessels to demand large sums of money.

Dr Frecon, a French post-doctoral fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that in May last year, he visited Belakang Padang, an island north-west of Batam and 25 minutes from the Singapore coast.

The island could once have been a 'pirate headquarters' where men from other parts of Indonesia would come, meet in wooden shacks and plan attacks. Activities there have slowed down since the early 2000s.

'Many of these pirates are old and retired and they don't want to take risks anymore, especially with increased police patrols,' Dr Frecon said.

Some of the pirates from Belakang Padang could also have moved to Pulau Mangkai, the westernmost island of Indonesia's Anambas Islands, he added.

'Now, pirates prefer to stay out of the village and stay along the quiet sealine to attack passing vessels.'

Dr Frecon said pirates usually operate from coastal ghettoes where people are poor. Many are fishermen who use their boats, often sampans fitted with extra engines, to carry out attacks.

They come from the same village and work in groups. Some have accomplices on board vessels who give them information on the ship's location and travelling schedule.

'They wear masks and carry knives just to scare the crew, but they are just looking for cash, phones, binoculars and even shoes,' said Dr Frecon.

Experts attribute the rise in regional pirate attacks to the global financial crisis. But they pointed out that the situation here is still a far cry from the escalating violence in the Gulf of Aden.

There, Somali pirates hijack vessels and hold ships and crews ransom, demanding millions each time.

ReCAPP'S Mr Teo said bandits in this region are mostly non-confrontational and tend to strike at night, especially in far-flung ports where security is lax. Ships there are often dimly lit and guarded by just a few men.

Former navy officer Adrian Liu said the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Singapore are also targets as pirates tend to strike in narrow waters closer to shore.

'They usually use small vessels with limited fuel capacity, so they need to rob and get back to shore quickly.'

Their targets are slow-moving vessels, those with low walls and those carrying valuable cargo. Figures from ReCAAP showed that container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers and tugboats were the worst hit.

Dr Frecon said pirates usually work in groups of five to seven. 'Once they see a ship that's slow and low and not so brightly lit, they attack,' he said.

Knives, parangs and at times guns are their weapons of choice.

Once they are near a vessel, the pirates will throw a rope ladder and climb on board. They then pocket cash, mobile phones, laptops, ropes, paint and also spare parts from the ships. Captains are also made to open safes where they keep the salaries of part-time crew.

German ship mechanic Alvin Maier, 33, said that five years ago, the vessel he was on was robbed along the Strait of Malacca. Four fishermen climbed on board and pointed knives at the crew.

'They were so desperate they took all they could find, including clothes and shoes,' he said. 'But they did not hurt us.'

The current situation, Mr Teo said, is quite different from the second half of the 1990s when there was the phenomenon of phantom ships.

This saw ships being hijacked, repainted and given a new identity, complete with altered documents. The vessels were then sold to buyers who were unaware of what had happened.

The situation improved several years ago as international concern mounted over attacks in and around the Malacca Strait, and the governments of countries flanking the waterway took action. Coordinated sea patrols and combined air patrols were launched. ReCAAP was also set up in 2006 as an information sharing centre.

When asked about the increase in piracy and armed robbery in the South China Sea, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said it was concerned.

It added that MPA issues navigational warnings to ship masters in the vicinity whenever it receives a report of piracy and armed robbery. Alerts are also sent to neighbouring countries.

To keep sea robbers out, vessels from the Police Coast Guard and the navy patrol the waters daily. In the night especially, they patrol close to Singapore territorial limits.

Mr Janardhana Rao, 34, who works on a vessel carrying fuel for three months at a stretch, said: 'Asian waters are much safer. Here, attacks are not life-threatening.'

How ships fend off attacks
Mavis Toh, Straits Times 27 Sep 09;
A ship mechanic can fix a vessel but has no clue how to fend off pirates.

That is why some shipowners hire security firms to post guards on board their vessels.

Former navy officer Adrian Liu's Triss Group is one such firm.

He has a core team of 10 men, all former special forces officers, to make sure that ships stick to their security plan.

This includes travelling at maximum speed when passing through piracy hot spots and locking all doors on board. There should also be only one point of entry and exit and that door should be guarded.

'This is to prevent pirates from entering the interior and taking over a vessel,' said Mr Liu, 36.

To make it difficult for pirates to board, some vessels put up harsh lights and fences.

Another anti-piracy measure is to rig the ship with powerful water hoses, with the water sometimes laced with chemicals. These high-pressure water jets are then aimed at the pirates to prevent them from climbing on board.

Guards are also able to spot the telltale signs of an impending attack. 'They can tell if a fast-moving vessel is making a beeline for your vessel,' Mr Liu said.

The ship will then be told to speed up and travel in a zigzag manner to create choppy waters and fend off the robbers.

But should the pirates succeed in boarding the vessels, these guards will become negotiators and keep the situation calm.

'We can't fight off pirates who are armed, but we can buy time and wait for real help from the navy and coast guard,' said Mr Liu.

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