Tokyo is asking Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore for help in freeing two Japanese and a Filipino captured in an attack on a Japanese-registered tugboat by armed pirates in the Malacca Strait.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged his cabinet Tuesday to work to rescue the three. Japan's coast guard was standing by to dispatch vessels to the Malacca Strait if the Malaysian government requests help.
Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura on Tuesday established a crisis task force to oversee efforts to rescue the boat's Japanese captain and chief engineer, and a Filipino engineer. Pirates attacked their tugboat on Monday, taking the three and letting the boat, with 11 other sailors aboard, sail on.
He says that Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are "doing their utmost" to free the abductees.
The foreign minister says it is not known where the pirates took the three.
Mak Junam is a piracy expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Security in Singapore.
"They have probably fled into Indonesian waters, somewhere in Sumatra and they are well ensconced in some hideaway," said Mak Junam.
Mr. Mak says such attacks for ransom occur several times a year - some ending with the hostages being killed by their captors - but the incidents get little publicity. He says Japan's appeal for help from Southeast Asian nations is a good strategy to try to free the hostages.
"I do believe the Malaysian marine police have a good intelligence unit and they keep track of all these people, but ultimately it is up to the Indonesians to act because it is within their national sovereign territory," he said.
The narrow Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia is one of the world's busiest waterways - and most of Japan's vital oil imports travel through it. Japanese politicians are calling for Tokyo to work more closely with nations in the region to prevent piracy.
Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia last year began coordinated patrols in the Strait after Japan and Western countries expressed concern that terrorists could hijack a tanker to use as a floating bomb or to block the Strait.
Mr. Mak says most of the pirates are part of a sophisticated criminal network, with middlemen arranging for ransoms to be paid into bank accounts. He says the only way to eliminate the attacks is to go after the pirates' bases and infrastructure on land.