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Posted on Sunday, September 17, 2000 - 03:47 pm:   

Ships vanish as piracy rules
John Sweeney reports on a new wave of brutal buccaneers plundering cargo lanes

John Sweeney

Sunday August 27, 2000

It would be hard in the modern age for a 12,000-tonne cargo ship, loaded to the gunnels with furnace slag, to disappear from the face of the earth. But that is exactly what happened to the MV Cheung Son, a Panama-flagged bulk carrier, as it ploughed through a slow swell in the South China Sea about 200 miles east of Hong Kong in November 1998.

It didn't vanish, of course. It was 'shipjacked' by pirates. The modern-day Long John Silvers gathered the crew of 23 together on the deck and shot them. Their bodies were weighted, bound and gagged, and dumped overboard. Later, six bodies were recovered in fishing nets off the southern Chinese port of Shantou. Of the ship and its cargo, there is no trace. The suspicion is that it has been given a new identity, with the collusion of corrupt officials.

The shipjacking of the Cheung Son was one of nine in the past two years. The rising problem of piracy on the high seas has led Foreign Officer Minister Peter Hain to call for global action. 'Piracy is deadly,' Hain told The Observer. 'Attacks on sailors, ships and their cargoes are increasing, by both opportunists and organised crime groups. They also steal huge vessels such as oil tankers, worth millions of pounds, and whose cargo if not protected poses a dreadful threat to the environment.'

Pirates work mainly from wretched places of the earth - Somalia in the Horn of Africa, west Africa, Bangladesh, and Indonesia - using speed boats capable of 30 knots to overtake ships going half as fast. The choke-zones of the high seas are favoured places to strike: the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia and the lawless waters where the Red Sea enters the Gulf of Aden, a short boat ride from Somalia.

The Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has a standard instruction that the coast off Somalia is a no-go area. The advice is to sail 50 or 100 miles off shore and keep radio use to a minimum.

Recently, pirates in small fast boats have tried to board ships off Bab el Mandeb in the Red Sea's southern tip. Masters report that small boats wait at the northern end of the traffic lane where ships slow down to turn towards the Indian Ocean.

The Indonesian archipelago and the Straits of Malacca - the world's busiest sea lane after the English Channel - have seen increased attacks. 'Piracy is increasingly concentrated in South-east Asia and the Indian Ocean,' said Hain. 'The number of pirate attacks worldwide in the first six months of this year was 161, an increase (of 56) on the same period last year.'

Captain Jayant Abhyankar of the IMB said: 'Most ships that are targeted are going eastbound through the Straits of Malacca, loaded, fairly low in the water and because the way the traffic system works, close to the Indonesian shore.'

Incidents logged in the past week by the IMB give a picture of modern piracy.

In the Malacca Straits two speedboats showing no lights approached a bulk carrier from the stern at night. The ship directed an Aldis lamp at the boats, which sped off.

Off Chittagong in Bangladesh, four pirates in a small wooden boat tried to steal zinc anodes - worth around $200 each - from the rudderpost of an anchored chemical tanker. Crew spotted the sea-thieves, who fled.

A would-be pirate was spotted on the forecastle of a tanker anchored off Vietnam, attempting to lower a rope to fellow raiders. When crew raised an alarm, he climbed down and escaped in a motorboat.

Off the coast of Conakry, Guinea, nine men armed with shotguns attempted to board a bulk carrier. The ship's crew fired flares at their wooden boat, and they fled.

Modern-day piracy - like that of old - requires organisation and funds. Impoverished fishermen cannot afford speedboats. The Foreign Office believes five or six gangs, some linked to Chinese triads, are behind some attacks. One gang operated from a mother-ship, where Indonesian police found handcuffs, masks, knives, immigration and ship stamps, and paint. Rogue regulators from flag-of-convenience states sell ship's papers for as little as $6,000.

And the IMB points to evidence that rogue Chinese military units have, in the past, colluded with pirates.

The Louisa was bound for China sailing on the South China Sea, out of Malaysia, with 5,000 tonnes of palm oil, when pirates struck in September 1998. A band of 25 toughs with automatic weapons, dressed in army camouflage and aboard what looked like a Chinese Navy boat boarded the Louisa. They accused the ship's master of smuggling illegal aliens and robbed him. They bound the crew and changed the name of the ship to 'Holly', flying Panama's flag. They kept the crew in fear of their lives for six days, then left with all that they could carry.

IMB investigators were alarmed. Five months earlier, pirates 'shipjacked' the Petro Ranger, bound for Ho Chi Minh City with a cargo of jet fuel and diesel oil. The pirates, balaclava-clad, and armed with machetes, boarded from a speedboat and beat Australian captain Ken Blyth. As the ship sailed on, the intruders ate, drank and watched blue movies. Then Blyth's crew managed to contact Chinese authorities. The pirates were arrested - with paperwork for the 'Holly'.

Captain Blyth was interrogated by two Chinese law enforcement agencies, the People's Liberation Army and the Public Security Bureau. One PSB officer even suggested he made up the pirate attack. The pirate gang, however, were released by the Chinese authorities - and, it seems, went on to attack the Louisa. The International Chamber of Commerce said it was 'a result of inefficiency and infighting amongst seemingly inept Chinese authorities concerned, or part of a deeper plot to cover up China's participation in criminal activity.'

'We had evidence of collusion at the highest level,' said Captain Abhyankar.

Named and shamed, the Chinese authorities hanged several suspects.

Marine investigators now suspect that pirate loot is still being smuggled into China, via Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the search for the missing Cheung Son continues, so far without luck.


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