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Alert Crewman Foils Tanker Pirates in Malacca Strait

Indonesian coast guardsmen sit on the deck of their patrol boat as it patrols waters of Malacca Straits (File photo - May 26, 2004)
An alert crewman on an oil tanker off the Malaysian coast has foiled a hijack attempt by a group of pirates. The crewmember stole the pirates' boat, leaving them stranded on the tanker and forced to surrender to police. Although this hijack was foiled, piracy remains a huge problem in the Malacca Strait, the narrow waters between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The 10 armed pirates boarded the tanker before dawn as it was heading past the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

But their plans were thrown into confusion by a quick-thinking member of the tanker's crew, who climbed into the boat used by the pirates and sped off to alert police.

After a three-hour standoff, the pirates, with no means of escape, were forced to surrender to Malaysian law enforcement officers. All 19 members of the tanker's crew were released, although preliminary reports say the captain of the ship sustained a light head injury.

It was a fortunate ending, but many other ships and crews in the narrow waters that separate Malaysia and Indonesia have not been so lucky. The Piracy Reporting Center, a Kuala Lumpur-based arm of the International Maritime Bureau says there were 37 attacks on shipping in the Strait last year, with 30 people killed and another 30 still missing.

"The Malacca Straits tend to be a favorite ground for pirates," said IMB deputy director Jayant Abhynkar. "They do board ships. At times, hijack them and then either hold the crew for ransom or just take the ship away with the cargo and discard the cargo somewhere. At the very least, it is straightforward robbery and they come on board, steal cash and then escape."

Some 50,000 ships a year pass through the Malacca Strait, making it one of the world's busiest waterways. Tankers steam east carrying oil from the Gulf to the resource-poor countries of Asia and cargo ships travel west carrying manufactured goods to markets in Africa and Europe.

Some analysts say that the countries surrounding the Strait - Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore - urged on by the United States, have tried to suppress the activities of the pirates, but consensus on a joint security operation has been hard to achieve because of politically sensitive questions over sovereignty.

Security has been increased, but as Tuesday's incident shows, the Malacca Strait is still a dangerous place for shipping.