Pirates ahead!

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

When the pirates came, the Pilion's crew was ready. The skipper had already spotted two or three suspicious boats edging closer during the approach into Singapore. Finally, a boat emerged from the darkness and a man climbed onto the deck of the Pilion, a cargo ship on its way from South Africa to Japan.

The 19-man crew was braced for trouble. After all, they were cruising the world's most pirate-infested waterways, where almost one-third of all reported pirate attacks take place. And they were in the treacherous waters of Indonesia, whose underpaid coast guards are suspected of sharing the spoils with modern-day Bluebeards.

But this time the pirates didn't get far. When several crew members stepped onto the deck to challenge the intruder, he turned and panicked, then fell into the water. The boats quietly slipped away into the inky tropical night. Within hours, the Pilion was docking safely in Singapore.

"This one was laughable," says Michael Papaioannou, owner of London-based Helikon Shipping, agent for the Pilion, who spoke to the ship's captain after the Feb. 4 incident. "But [pirates] can be extremely dangerous. It frightens the living daylights out of our crews."

Pirates have long had an unsavory reputation, as any seasoned reader of "Treasure Island" and other sea yarns would agree. But today's swashbucklers - motivated by greed, war, or revolutionary fervor - are plundering Asia's coastlines with increasing violence and frequency.

The sharp rise in recent piracy attacks in Southeast Asia is unnerving governments as well as shippers, not least because of the strategic importance of its waterways and its vulnerability to terrorism.

Around 30 percent of the world's traded goods pass through the Strait of Malacca bordered by Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

This channel, only 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest point, is a vital link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It's also home to rebel armies, criminal gangs, smugglers, and Islamic militants who thrive in the lawless waters of Indonesia, which leads the world in piracy attacks.

The International Maritime Bureau, which began compiling piracy statistics in 1991, says last year was the second-worst on record, with 445 actual and attempted attacks on merchant ships. Of those, 121 occurred in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands stretched across three time zones. A further 35 were reported in the better-policed waterways around Malaysia and Singapore.

Such incidents are on the rise because of increasing poverty, rebel activity, and lawlessness in Indonesia, as well as the perception that ships are easy targets, experts say. And, they add, the pirates operating in the region are well-armed, often with automatic weapons and fast boats, and are increasingly brazen. Instead of prowling the high seas, pirates are pouncing on boats close to port, and not always waiting until nightfall to attack.

The Pilion is a case in point: The attack occurred off the Indonesian island of Karimun, only a few hours from Singapore, the world's busiest port. Maritime authorities in Singapore say that two other vessels were robbed the previous week at the same location. In both incidents, pirates took cash and valuables without harming the crew.

Pressure is growing for governments to curb the problem. In January, the defense ministers of Indonesia and Singapore met to discuss how to cooperate against pirates. If they don't succeed, momentum could swing toward an overland oil pipeline in Thailand. The project would allow tankers (but not other cargo ships) to circumvent the pirate-infested strait completely.

Kidnappings on the rise

In general, today's Blackbeards focus on quick cash returns rather than cargo heists, unless it's a commodity that's easy to repackage and sell.

On rare occasions, pirates will leave the crew and sail the vessel to another port to sell to a broker.

Others instead try to kidnap seamen and extort money from shipping companies for their safe return. It's a practice that's on the rise, though industry watchdogs say many shipowners prefer to pay up and keep quiet.

Nonetheless, the IMB recorded 399 kidnapping incidents in 2003 - including 139 in Indonesia alone - up from only 191 such attacks in 2002.

"The pirates usually call the owner and ask for an amount that [the owners] can afford. And typically they will pay, especially if they are Chinese or Singaporean," says Noel Choong, who heads the IMB's piracy watch center in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.

Some owners refuse to pay up - with tragic consequences.

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.

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