Piracy disappears in tsunami's wake

The once-booming business of maritime piracy off the east coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra has ground to a halt in the wake of the 26 December tsunami.

    Aceh's east coast was notorious for smugglers and gun-runners

    Previously, it thrived despite the presence of warships and patrol vessels of three Southeast

    Asian nations.

    "It is still one of our piracy hotspots, but since December 26 tsunami we have not

    recorded a single attack on shipping in the Malacca Strait," Noel Choong, of the

    International Maritime Board (IMB) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said.

    The IMB tracks incidents of piracy around the world.

    "One reason may be that the physical assets they [pirates] use, the boats and the

    weapons, were destroyed in the tsunami. And, of course, the another possibility is

    that they themselves may have died. It's a big question mark and we're watching

    the situation closely."

    Smugglers' island

    More than 100,000 ships annually travel the narrow, 960km-long waterway that

    separates the Malaysian peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, carrying

    roughly half of the world's oil supplies and a third of its the cargo.

    Located at the northern tip of Sumatra, Aceh is well known for smuggling,

    gun-running and piracy.

    Indonesian navy patrol boats
    policing the Strait of Malacca

    Aceh's east coast was particularly notorious for the violence and sophistication of

    the attacks, which often involved several powerboats loaded with armed men who

    would strike in the early hours of the morning.

    If they managed to board, the assailants robbed the crewmen, and forced the

    vessel's safe. In rare cases entire vessels and their cargoes have been seized.

    Dozens of crewmen have been kidnapped and held for ransoms of up to $60,000 per

    person.

    Indonesian authorities, who on Sunday wrapped up three days of talks with the

    leadership of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Finland, routinely accuse

    the rebels of engaging in piracy to support their 29-year military campaign.

    Organised crime

    While it might once have been the case, evidence collected from sailors kidnapped

    for ransom indicate a criminal syndicate is primarily responsible, according to IMB's

    Choong.

    "In the beginning, about five years ago, it was GAM. However, in 2003 there were

    signs that it wasn't GAM doing it but organised criminal gangs," he said. "These are

    kidnap-for-profit operations, not separatists."

    The tsunami might have wreaked
    havoc on local crime syndicates

    GAM relies on the theft of weapons from Indonesian soldiers' armouries, and

    gun-runners operating along the rugged coastline to fuel their rebellion.

    In 2003,

    Indonesian police stumbled across a container-load of smuggled refrigerators full of

    automatic weapons traced back to a theft from a Thai army base three months

    earlier.

    The IMB reported that 121 of the 445 attacks on commercial shipping in 2003

    occurred in Indonesian waters, a 20% increase over the previous year.

    Twenty-one

    seamen died, over 350 were taken hostage and 70 remain missing.

    Roughly 70 cases of piracy were reported in the strait during the first nine months of

    2004.

    Sharp rise

    "These were very serious attacks, involving multiple boats and men with automatic

    weapons, shots into the bridge, lots of bullet holes in the windows and crew

    members being injured and killed," Choong said.

    "In 2003 there were

    signs that it wasn't GAM doing it but organised criminal gangs. These are

    kidnap-for-profit operations, not separatists"

    Noel Choong,
    International Maritime Board, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    The final quarter of 2004 saw a sharp rise in piracy cases, despite beefed-up naval

    patrols spurred by fears al-Qaida might commandeer a vessel and crash it into the

    port in Singapore, one of the busiest shipping hubs on the planet.

    Security analysts pointed to a specific incident in 2003 during which a container ship

    in the Malacca Strait was boarded and piloted for several hours by a group of men

    who stole nothing from the crew and disappeared into the night, as a possible

    training run for a future attack.

    Pirates' response

    Till recently, US and Singapore
    were conducting joint patrols

    Last April, a senior US naval officer disclosed the outline of plans for the deployment

    of US Marines and Special Forces troops in the Malacca Strait, souring relations with

    predominantly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia.

    Together with neighbouring Singapore they formed highly publicised joint patrols in

    the Malacca Straits, sharing radio frequencies and approving the pursuit of pirates

    across national territorial waters. The pirates reacted by expanding operations,

    Choong said.

    "Before the tsunami, the number of attacks was increasing noticeably despite the

    presence of the naval patrols, which was troubling to us," he said.

    "They're highly mobile. They move up and down the coast to the most northern tip

    of Sumatra, they were heading further and further out to sea and even into

    Malaysian waters."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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