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Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore Launch Maritime Security Patrols - 2004-07-20

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are launching coordinated patrols to improve security in the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. The waterway is already notorious for piracy and there is increasing concern it could become a target for terrorists.

The Malacca Strait is a narrow, 800-km long strip of water running between Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore. It's a crucial transport route for more than 50,000 ships a year, carrying about one quarter of the world's overall trade. But, the Malacca Strait is also one of the world's most dangerous waterways, where modern-day pirates routinely lie in wait to attack passing ships.

The International Maritime Bureau logged more than two pirate attacks a month in the Malacca Strait last year.

Security experts describe most of the attacks as "maritime muggings." They say the pirates use inflatable speed boats to attack relatively small ships, holding their crews at gunpoint and quickly stealing cash or valuables before racing away. But the pirates, most of whom are believed to be working out of small inlets in Indonesia, are becoming more sophisticated and beginning to target larger ships.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have now launched a program to improve security through coordinated maritime patrols, whereby boats from all three navies will patrol the area. Marty Natalegawa, spokesman for the Indonesian foreign ministry in Jakarta, explained the importance of the initiative. "This idea of having a year-long coordinated patrol is indicative of a regional response to an obvious challenge in the Straits of Malacca," he says. "In the sense that the littoral countries as required under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea responding accordingly rather than inviting extra-regional powers to actually physically deploy their forces in our waters."

The initiative comes amid increasing concerns about a potentially bigger threat -- namely fears that terrorists could attack ships as they pass through the Malacca Strait.

Earlier this year, the United States suggested that U.S. forces might be deployed to patrol the narrow waterway. While Singapore appeared receptive to the idea, both Indonesia and Malaysia adamantly opposed it.

Washington is worried that al-Qaeda-linked terrorists might target ships passing through the Malacca Strait. Any such attack could severely disrupt shipments of oil from the Middle East to East Asia, and shipments of Asian manufactured goods to Europe and Africa. There are also fears that terrorists could use ships as a huge floating bomb to attack a port.