Last November a rusty old freighter, bound for Iran, was abandoned by its 15 -man crew in the Red Sea. The circumstances were more than a little suspicious, according to sources looking into the case, because the supposedly troubled ship took some time to sink, considering its cargo was 9,500 tons of steel and piping.
Indeed, the cargo may not have been on board at all.
Investigators here and in London say the ship, which cannot be named during investigations, was one of the latest victims of the 20th century version of piracy, a trend that has reached crisis proportions in the eastern Mediterranean over the past four years and in the Gulf for past 16 months.
The culprits hardly fit the image of sword-wielding buccaneers of yore. Their weapons today are computers and telex machines, forged documents, and Swiss bank accounts, according to Samir Baroudi, a Lebanese lawyer who has made such fame in pursuing pirates that he regularly receives death threats, with his bullet-pocked office wall as proof.
But the rogues are just as dangerous, their dastardly deeds having broader implications economically than in the 17th and 18th centuries. Lebanese officials estimate that the government has lost roughly 30 percent of its national income over the past few years as a result of piracy and related crimes such as smuggling.
This month the Lebanese parliament introduced much-heralded antipiracy legislation, which includes stiff penalties of up to seven years' hard labor and sometimes comical twists, for the pirates are rarely raiders. Instead, the crimes are usually carried out by the shipowner and a corrupt sea captain who conspire to steal the cargo from an unsuspecting, and faraway client and then peddle the goods for profit elswhere - like Lebanon.
There are some 18 illegal ports on the 155-mile coastline. Manned by various militias and unchecked by the government, they have taken over a large share of the profitable shipping traffic, and customs revenues since the 1975-76 civil war.
This type of piracy, technically called barratry, is covered up by a variety of tricks. Sometimes, the vessels are scuttled or sunk after the drop, since most of the small and aging steamers are worth but a tiny fraction of the value of their
cargo. The vessel used in the Iran-bound scheme had been in drydock for three years when it was hauled out for the run from Bilboa to Bandar Khomeini, and investigators suspect it dumped its merchandise on Beirut's thriving black market.
In a more complicated operation, a ship's captain changes the owner's name and sometimes even the ship's flag between departure and docking. This amounts to a legal laundering, since the shipowner inevitably sells the vessel back to himself under a different title.
The Lebanese have labeled this group ''the paintbrush pirates,'' since once the old name is painted over, its cargo is untraceable for months, especially when accompanied by forged bills of lading, certificates of origins, and invoices - each with the new name and new destination.
Lloyds of London's intelligence service, which tries to keep track of truant, missing, or wayward ships, tripped on to several of these cases in 1978 and 1979 . There have been fewer in the past year, according to Eric Ellen of the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which was set up in 1980 to fight the growing number of maritime frauds.
Mr. Baroudi claims a third method is now being used: the ''floating supermarket.'' In this scheme, hijacked cargo is transferred at sea to a second carrier, owned by same people, which then carries the goods on to a port to be sold on the black market - again, often in Lebanon.
Although investigators hesitate to comment on who is behind modern piracy, they note that a handful of Greek names keep cropping up as owners and captains, such as the one bound for Iran. Several of the ships in question have made their name changes during unscheduled repair stops in Greek ports. Mr. Baroudi is more direct: ''It is an international mafia, mainly Greeks.''
The cost of modern piracy is astronomical to countries such as Lebanon, which in prewar days collected 47 percent of its income from customs duties on goods that were then trucked to Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Ellen said that four cases alone last year involved claims by cargo owners of $100 million.
The Gulf has become the latest target of pirates, who are exploiting confusion resulting from the 16-month old Iran-Iraq war, according to Mr. Ellen.
IMB has no statistics on piracy in the Gulf, in part because many of the governments have nationalized insurance companies, and therefore hijacked cargoes are not reported through London underwriters to shipping associations.
Indeed, information on piracy is scarce, as Mr. Ellen explained: ''Someone suggested that we do not hear about more than 1 percent of the incidents that take place. That's probably true. It's a tough business to crack.''
Lebanon remains the biggest problem, he added, noting its nickname, ''the Mediterranean triangle.'' And officials seem to be unable to do anything about it.
When the government purchased eight patrol boats to keep track of shipping traffic, one was almost immediately hijacked by a militia group. Since then, the boats have not left the harbor.
Although Mr. Ellen said he wished other governments, notably in the Far East and Latin America, would pass legislation like the new Lebanese code, Mr. Baroudi pointed out that piracy is likely to remain big business in the troubled Levant despite the new low.
''It took two years to get (the Lebanese code) through parliament, but tragically it is of less value than the paper it is written on. The government simply can't enforce its own act,'' says Mr. Baroudi.
In his most disappointing case, actually uncovered while the ship was still in port, the Lebanese lawyer obtained a seizure order from the courts - then could find no authority to carry it out, and the ship and its pirate crew sailed off.