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Pirates ahead!

Off the lawless coasts of Indonesia, shadowy bands of looters still ply their trade. Only the booty has changed.

(Page 2 of 2)

Some owners refuse to pay up - with tragic consequences.

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In February, four seamen were shot dead by Indonesian pirates and dumped into the sea after a shipping company refused to pay a $12,000 ransom. Police said four bodies later found washed up on a beach in north Sumatra were among 13 crew members held by pirates since Jan. 5. The vessel was carrying palm oil when it was intercepted. Police said the remaining hostages were released unhurt.

Last year saw a doubling in deadly assaults on merchant seamen and a fourfold increase in the number of crewmen injured. In all, the IMB reported 644 acts of violence, almost double the 327 recorded in 2002.

A spate of attacks off the coast of Bangladesh placed that country ahead of Indonesia in the tally of the world's deadliest waters for merchant ships.

But it's the plight of ships transiting the Strait of Malacca and braving Indonesia's lawless waters that raises the loudest alarm.

Lurking behind the human and economic risks of moving cargo is a more troubling question: Could the Malacca Strait become a soft target for terrorists trying to hit maritime targets?

Singapore certainly thinks so. Last November, its defense minister, Teo Chee Hean, warned that oil tankers could be used as floating weapons to cause devastation in the region.

"For terrorists, the payoff from a successful attack could be considerable. The damage could be horrific if terrorists turned supertankers ... or chemical carriers into floating bombs," he told a maritime conference in Singapore.

Al Qaeda was blamed for a suicide bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen in October 2002 that replicated a similar nearby attack on the USS Cole two years earlier.

A terrorist cell in Singapore linked to Al Qaeda plotted in 2002 to hit docked US naval vessels using a smaller boat rigged with explosives, a tactic copied from the USS Cole. Its members were later arrested before they could move on this and other deadly plots.

Terrorism in the Strait of Malacca?

Terrorist experts point out that Indonesian pirates have occasionally hijacked tankers and piloted the vessels before escaping, raising the possibility of plans afoot to strike in the Malacca Strait. Tugboats used to guide larger ships into port have also gone missing over the past year.

Others say that it would be easy to acquire a suitable vessel through proxies if this was the intention.

"We haven't seen evidence of terror groups investing in maritime equipment yet, but that doesn't mean they won't in the future," says Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies.

Some of the rise in piracy close to the Malacca Strait is blamed on the Free Aceh Movement, armed rebels who are fighting Indonesian troops on the northern tip of Sumatra. The remainder is run-of-the-mill banditry that usually goes unchecked by Indonesia's feeble security response.

"It's like a street mugging, except that it happens at sea," says Papaioannou, the Pilion's agent.

Crewmen complain that distress calls to Indonesian authorities often go unanswered. Shipowners say they have even received reports of Indonesian patrol boats taking part in pirate raids.

Whatever the reasons, Indonesia faces a massive challenge in policing its far-flung waters. Its Navy has only 117 ships, including 57 patrol boats, and many are said to be unusable.

Japan, which imports 80 percent of its crude oil via the Malacca Strait, has offered to help Indonesia beef up its coast guard. But it will take some time before this and other regional security cooperation efforts bear fruit.

Protecting cargo and crew

That leaves crews bracing for more uninvited visitors.

Shipowners say arming crews would be a risky move, and instead have insisted on strict antipiracy watches in the Malacca Strait and other pirate-infested waters. Ships use water hoses around the stern to deter attackers who try to sneak up and evade radar cover. Bright lights are employed at night.

Since most pirates rely on surprise, such measures do deter attacks, but they may not keep away the most determined raiders, says Adam Young, who is writing his thesis at Hawaii University on piracy in the Malacca Strait.

"It's like locking the doors of your car. If it's a casual thief, they will move on to the next target, but if they really want your specific car, there is nothing you can really do," he says.