The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said the number of reported ship attacks jumped to 445 in 2003, 20% higher than the previous year and the second highest level since it began compiling statistics in 1991.
The number of seafarers killed also climbed to 21, with another 71 crew or passengers listed as missing, while 88 were injured. This compared to 10 killed and 38 injured the previous year. The number of hostages taken also nearly doubled to 359 in 2003.
"The figures show an increase in the number of the attacks and violence of the attacks. We call upon the countries with piracy problems to give greater priority to policing their waters," said IMB director Captain Pottengal Mukundan.
The IMB said the number of ships hijacked for the theft of the vessel and its cargo had dramatically reduced, but that more vulnerable boats such as tugs and barges were being targeted and crews were being abducted for ransom.
It said kidnappings were believed to be largely the work of militia groups in politically sensitive areas. "The motivation of a militia attack is different to that of commercial pirates," Mukundan told Reuters in an interview.
"This is a revenue source for them - but they are not interested in stealing the ship or its cargo. They are locally based groups, who don't want to go to other ports and don't have the contacts to dispose of the cargo," he said, pointing to the separatist movement in Aceh, Indonesia, as an example.
Indonesian waters continue to be the most dangerous with 121 reported attacks in 2003. The Malacca Straits, between Indonesia and Malaysia and one of the world's most strategically important shipping lanes, saw a rise to 28 attacks in 2003. Thirty percent of the world's trade and 80% of Japan's crude oil is transported through the narrow waterway.
Some Western intelligence agencies and maritime security experts have linked al-Qaida, or groups associated with it, to Indonesian piracy. Experts claim al-Qaida showed its seaborne attack capability by bombing the Limburg oil tanker off Yemen in 2002 and US warship USS Cole in 2000.
Modern-day pirates often attack
using sub-machine guns
"In 23% of the attacks, tankers were the targets," Mukundan said. "The fact that these ships carrying dangerous cargoes may be temporarily under the control of unauthorised individuals remains a matter of concern.
"We have also seen, for the first time, ships being attacked simultaneously by a number of small pirate boats, firing weapons at the bridge of the vessel," he said.
Need for patrols
Bangladesh was ranked as having the second highest number of attacks in 2003 with 58 and Nigeria came third with 39.
Attacks off Nigeria almost tripled compared to the previous year and the IMB regards it as the most dangerous area in Africa for piracy and armed robbery.
"We have also seen, for the first time, ships being attacked simultaneously by a number of small pirate boats, firing weapons at the bridge of the vessel"
Captain Pottengal Mukundan,
Director, International Maritime Bureau
Mukundan said commercial pirates were often backed by organised international crime gangs that obtain false papers for a ship to help it enter a new port. The gangs are attracted to cargoes that are easy to resell, such as fuel oil, rice or sugar, Mukundan said.
Modern-day pirates often attack using sub-machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The IMB said the number of attacks using guns rose to 100 from 68 the previous year.
Drop in attacks
However, some countries saw a reduction in piracy. Somalia had a 50% drop in reported attacks, although the IMB said the eastern and north-eastern coast of the African country remained a high-risk area for hijackings and kidnapping of crew for ransom.
Other countries with fewer attacks in the past year included Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ecuador, Guyana and Thailand. Malaysian waters saw a fall to only five attacks, with none reported in the last six months of 2003, which the IMB said was due to vigilant patrols by the Malaysian marine police.
"Some kinds of attacks and attacks in certain areas have dramatically reduced. This proves once again that when law enforcement agencies take these attacks seriously there will be a corresponding reduction in attacks," Mukundan said.