A group that monitors international shipping activity says sea piracy in Asia shows signs of declining, but that it is too soon to say whether Asia's shipping lanes are safer.
The London-based International Maritime Bureau, or IMB, says piracy on the high seas decreased worldwide for the first three months of 2004, compared with the year before.
There were 79 attacks reported from January to March, compared with 103 attacks last year. The IMB says that is the lowest first-quarter number in three years.
Still, the IMB's Jayant Abhyankhar warns against drawing positive conclusions about the report too soon.
"The three months alone can't really say very much," he said. "The same thing happened in the year 2000, and the attacks shot up quite high towards the end."
Southeast Asia has the world's most pirate infested waters, partly due to geography, and partly due to poverty. Indonesia reported 21 attacks in the first quarter of 2004, seven fewer than last year. The archipelago's thousands of waterways make it a hospitable nest for pirates who rob commercial ships.
The IMB says countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and India have made good strides in anti-piracy enforcement.
But the United States and other countries still fear Southeast Asia could be prime ground for terrorist attack. Several countries have expressed willingness to talk about deploying U.S. Marine patrols to help with anti-terrorist operations.
Mr. Abhyankar of the IMB says the greatest security is achieved when shipping companies and their crews raise their level of vigilance. He says the activity of pirates dropped after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"After the 9/11 attacks in New York, there were no piracy incidents in the world for the next 12 days, which was unheard of," said Jayant Abhyankhar. "The only reason one can put it down to is enhanced security."
Mr. Abhyankar says shipping companies should make a number of investments to guard against pirate attacks.
"There is a sort of electric fence they can erect around a ship, which is not too expensive, and it will more or less guarantee immunity from attacks," he said. "Then you have tracking devices, whereby, if a ship does get hijacked, then she can be found in very, very short time indeed."
In July, 108 nations are scheduled to begin enforcing an agreement called the International Ship and Port Security Code, sponsored by the United Nations International Maritime Organization. The code standardizes security procedures among governments, port authorities and shipping companies.