Wed, Jul 21, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Ship captains air fears on Malacca

REUTERS , SINGAPORE

Ships from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia participate yesterday in a ceremony to launch the three countries' coordinated patrol of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's most important shipping lanes.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Ship captains have written to maritime authorities expressing fears for their lives on voyages through the Malacca Strait after a spate of violent kidnappings last month, an ocean crime watchdog reported yesterday.

The Indonesian, Singapore and Malaysian navies began coordinated patrols of the Strait of Malacca shipping lanes yesterday to combat piracy and terrorism in the vital and dangerous waterway through which more than one-quarter of world trade passes.

"A few weeks ago the situation in the Malacca Strait was pretty bad, especially in the north," said Noel Choong, manager of the UK-based International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Asian office.

"A lot of ships are very concerned about their own safety," Choong said.

Singapore is particularly anxious about lawlessness in and around the Malacca Strait, which it believes could be a prime target for a terrorist attack.

The IMB wrote three letters to Indonesian authorities seeking tougher patrols after pirates armed with automatic machine guns and grenades attacked commercial ships in a northern region of the Malacca Strait off Indonesia's Aceh province last month.

"A lot of ships were being shot at and once the ship stopped they would kidnap the captain and the chief engineer," Choong said from Kuala Lumpur.

"The captains have been writing us and asking us if they are kidnapped what is going to happen, stuff like that," he said.

In one 12-day period from June 4, the IMB received reports of eight serious incidents, mainly kidnappings of senior crew members, followed by ransom demands for their release, he said.

Indonesian authorities responded by sending patrols, reducing the frequency of attacks.

"They have taken some form of action," Choong said.

The attacks have gone down and are now under control," Choong said.

"Things are better now than a few weeks ago, where a lot of ships were being shot at. But we are still monitoring the situation and we have to give it a few weeks," he said.

"We just hope they will maintain whatever they are doing," he said.

"The moments the boats come back, within a matter of time it will start again," Choong said.

The IMB recorded 445 pirate attacks last year.

That figure was the second-highest since the bureau began compiling data in 1992, and of those about one-third took place in Indonesian waters, including in the Malacca Strait.

More than 50,000 commercial vessels sail the 805km channel between the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula to Singapore each year.

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