Good Company

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Pirates of the modern day variety - LA Times take

LA Times on piracy here:
The 550-mile-long channel, flanked by Singapore and Malaysia to the east and the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the west, is one of the world's most strategic international waterways and its busiest shipping lane. Each year, 60,000 vessels, the equivalent of nearly half the world's entire merchant fleet, negotiate the funnel-shaped shortcut between the Pacific and Indian oceans. They range from mammoth supertankers as large as city skyscrapers to tugs and barges.

Such seaborne commercial traffic attracts a sophisticated brand of piracy that has moved far beyond the scabbards and cutlasses of the 17th century.

Many are opportunists, Choong said, impromptu gangs of poor fisherman who can't resist the allure of lumbering, unarmed vessels laden with cash and goods: "They realized that robbing unarmed sailors is a lot easier than robbing a bank." Others are more ambitious and well-organized, professionals who plunder ships for crime syndicates, warlords, corrupt government officials and even regional terrorist groups.

IN recent years, Choong says, emboldened pirates have become more sophisticated. They forge passports and other documents to turn working maritime vessels into slave- and drug-running ships. They use satellite phones and global positioning systems.

With high-speed fiberglass boats, they creep up from behind, using the cover of the ship radar's blind spot. With grappling hooks and expert climbing skills, they scale the vessel's mooring ropes and overpower isolated and vulnerable crews.

The pirates don't just use the cover of darkness. They also take advantage of national sovereignty laws.
Many pirate attacks are hit-and-run robberies. In others, crew members are kidnapped for ransom, even tortured and killed. Countless vessels have been hijacked, their nameplates and paperwork swiftly changed, and turned into ghost ships used by syndicates for drug and slave smuggling.
Although the last 12 months have brought an uneasy hiatus, Choong says recent incidents suggest piracy may be back — with an ominous new wrinkle.

In July, armed attackers boarded two United Nations-chartered vessels carrying tsunami relief supplies. In the first incident, six men in military fatigues brazenly stormed the ship before noon, one of the first reported daylight raids.

The next day, a dozen heavily armed men claiming to be attached to the Free Aceh Movement, an Indonesian separatist group, commandeered another U.N. ship. The same week, a gang of 35 pirates with machine guns and rocket launchers seized a fully loaded gasoline tanker and kidnapped its captain. He was later released with the vessel.

Choong and others believe such instances suggest the possibility of a major terrorist attack in the Strait of Malacca, which slices through the heart of a region rife with political and religious unrest.

International security experts also fear that militants might commandeer a giant crude oil tanker for use as a floating bomb.
A timely reminder.

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