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Pirates Increase Deadly Attacks on High Seas - 2004-07-26

Murder on the high seas reached a record high during the first half of 2004. A leading maritime security agency says that while the overall number of attacks has actually declined, the fatality rate has risen and some of the hardest hit areas are in Southeast Asia.

A new report by the International Maritime Bureau warns that pirates are becoming better organized and more dangerous.

So far this year pirates have launched at least 182 separate attacks around the world and killed 30 people.

In the same period last year, there were 234 attacks reported, but only 16 fatalities.

Thomas Timlen, a piracy expert at BIMCO, the world's largest international shipping association, says the new report highlights the deadly nature of piracy and he says some of the hardest hit areas are in Southeast Asia and particularly in Indonesia.

"One of the main factors relates to the many islands that are difficult to patrol, there are thousands of islands which can be used by the attackers for bases," he explained.

The Malacca Strait running between Indonesia and Malaysia is a prime target for pirate attacks. Since January there have been 20 attacks there already.

The Strait carries more than 50,000 ships a year, many laden with key oil shipments for China and the rest of Asia.

The pirate attacks have also raised concerns that terrorists could easily follow their lead. Last week Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore started their first joint patrols of the Malacca Strait to fight piracy and prevent terrorism.

The coordinated response is considered a significant advance. But, Mr. Timlen says some countries still fail to help one another capture or prosecute pirates who operate in foreign waters.

"One hurdle that has to be overcome is the question of sovereignty and establishing agreements whereby naval vessels of one country are allowed to navigate through the waters of other countries in the pursuit of the attackers," said Mr. Timlen.

Today, pirates can range from desperate fisherman in tiny boats to well organized criminal gangs. Thomas Timlen says the leading syndicates have ties to corrupt port officials who pass along route and cargo information.

"Those are the situations where in addition to having more advanced weaponry they also have falsified ship certificates and documents and also documents related to the cargo which enable them to sell the cargo in the black market," he said.

Some insurance industry estimates put the cost of piracy as high as $15 billion a year.

In addition to the ongoing threats in Indonesia, piracy is also on the rise near the West African nation of Nigeria and off the coast of Somalia in east Africa.