Recognizing the piracy problem

Imagine a worldwide crime wave, leaving hundreds of people dead, injured, or kidnapped, and costing hundreds of millions of dollars a year, that gets little or no public attention. Piracy and armed robbery against ships are not a figment of imagination but a matter of fact.

Piracy is as old as shipping, yet has never been as systematic, violent, and widely practiced as today. Take the case of the Anna Sierra, a merchantman flying the flag of Cyprus with a $5 million cargo. Off the coast of Cambodia, 30 heavily armed men boarded her in 1995, and she literally disappeared. Found the following year in a South China port, she had been repainted and reregistered - one of the untold numbers of "phantom ships" similarly hijacked. Incredibly, she wasn't discovered by a vigilant government but by the small Regional Piracy Center established in Malaysia by the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

The IMB reports 631 cases involving violence to crew at sea and in port in 1997. Earlier this year, the crews of two vessels went missing, and the 23-man Chinese crew of a third ship was murdered. The UN's International Maritime Organization (IMO) describes how Filipino fishing vessels have been boarded from faster craft coming alongside with the bandits expertly taking the fish catch, boat engines, fuel, personal effects, even the boat itself.

Removal of the strong US and Soviet cold war naval presence in the Philippines and Vietnam may have aided pirates. However, the Asian economic crisis is probably the main reason for the regional increase in piracy and robbery in the past two years.

Piracy, like all organized crime, is up to date. Operating from "mother ships," pirates send out false distress signals to lure victims. Working with corrupt agents, they know which cargoes are worth stealing and the ships' routes. High-tech munitions have been seen: rocket-propelled rifle grenades, Soviet surface-to-air-missiles, antiship mines, and handheld mortars.

The brutality of attack involves other, greater risks. The narrow and often shallow Malacca Strait between Singapore and Sumatra is always crowded, largely with tankers. In one case, pirates boarded a steaming container ship, trussed up the watch officer, and went to captain's and crew's cabins to demand money and valuables. The ship, zigzagging out of control across shipping lanes, hit a tanker. All aboard the ship and 20 on the tanker were killed. Fortunately, not too much oil was spilled. Other near misses underscore the danger of environmental catastrophe.

Piracy and robbery take many forms. The warlords of Somalia send armed men in speedboats to attack freighters and fishing vessels coming around the Horn of Africa. They get ransom for ships and crews. But most of the incidents, overall, are armed robberies in port.

he IMO speaks of 300 reported attacks against ships at sea in 1997. The actual count is thought to be twice that or more. Ship owners are not eager to report attacks and get involved in an investigation causing the costly detainment of their ships. Ports sit on the story to preserve their nation's reputation and protect tourism.

What can be done? Additional laws will not help. Piracy on the high seas has long been a universal crime. Robbery and murder are punishable in every country. Naval protection? Who would provide and pay for it? Sovereign rights, jealously guarded everywhere, would keep foreign law enforcers out of territorial waters, not to mention seaports. Also, there is no reliable system of international security.

Full disclosure is needed of this phenomenon to arouse governments and citizens. The Captain Kidds of the 18th century were put out of business when governments decided things had gone too far. It is not a matter of scouring the seas - pirates can be caught when they come ashore. There are faint signs that this may be happening. China, notoriously lax, has recently arrested and charged 10 suspects with murder. A gang has been rounded up in Indonesia.

The world's nations must generate the political will to act in their own interest.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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