Pirate attacks on the rise, experts say

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International Maritime Bureau report shows an increase in gun use and coordinated attacks

A bulk carrier at anchor earlier this year in Balikpapan, Indonesia — its crew busy tending to cargo — was quietly boarded by 10 pirates armed with knives. The thieves assaulted a crewmember and stole ship’s property, then quickly escaped unnoticed by the rest of the crew by crawling down an anchor chain.

Pirate attacks like this increased in frequency and violence around the world last year, with a total of 445 incidents reported compared to 370 in 2002, according to the International Maritime Bureau. IMB, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, which tracks pirate attacks in the shipping industry, released its 2003 annual report Jan. 29.

It was the second-highest number of attacks since the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur started compiling statistics in 1991, according to the bureau. The highest number of incidents was 469 in 2000.

The number of mariners killed last year also rose, with 21 known to be killed compared with 10 the previous year. Seventy-one passengers and crewmembers were listed as missing.

The number of hostages taken nearly doubled, to 359. IMB says kidnappings for ransom are believed to be the work of militia groups in politically sensitive areas.

The number of attacks using guns rose to 100 from 68 in 2002. Ships were boarded in 311 instances, and 19 ships were hijacked, according to the report.

Indonesian waters continue to be the most dangerous, with 121 reported incidents in 2003, followed by Bangladesh with 58 attacks and Nigeria with 39. Attacks off Nigeria almost tripled, to 39, making Nigerian waters the most dangerous in Africa for attacks on shipping.

No attacks were reported in Malaysian waters during the last six months of the year, another piracy hotbed in recent years.

“This remarkable result is undoubtedly due to vigilant patrols and constant operations by the relevant Malaysian authorities, particularly the Royal Malaysian Marine Police,” says Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, IMB director.

The report showed some new trends. For example, hijackings of merchant vessels and their cargoes ceased last year. All hijackings reported were in two main categories: military-style operations by militant groups seeking to hold crew members for ransom,and attacks against such soft targets as tugs and barges.

Officials are concerned about a rise in attacks on tankers, which account for 22 percent of total attacks. “That these ships carrying dangerous cargoes may fall temporarily under the control of unauthorized and unqualified individuals is a matter of concern for both environmental and safety reasons,” says Mukundan.

The IMB also reported an increase in coordinated attacks involving several boats at once, especially in Indonesian waters of the Malacca Strait and around Bintan Island. The attackers approach a target ship from different directions and spray the superstructure with gunfire in an attempt to get the vessel to stop.