PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 November, 1993, 12:00am

PIRACY in the '90s is a highly organised, lucrative business with offenders facing little chance of being caught as authorities squabble over who should bring them to justice. While the Jolly Roger has gone, the new breed of pirate is capable of stealing, to order, entire ships and cargoes. They are ruthless international criminals, who allegedly often have the backing of corrupt government officials.

'Not only will they steal, but they will use violence and injure, maim and even kill in pursuit of their crimes,' said Eric Ellen, director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which monitors piracy.

The shipping industry fears a maritime disaster will occur unless the crimes are stopped. Pirates frequently force crews to leave ships unmanned during attacks, even in narrow and crowded waterways. Incidents of piracy increased 60 per cent in the first eight months of this year compared with the same period in 1991. Eighty-three attacks were reported from January to August. However, many attacks are not reported by captains worried about an increase in insurance premiums or damage to their company's reputation for providing secure transport.

The most dangerous areas are the South China Sea and North Asia where 49 of the attacks took place. These danger zones, where captains are warned to take extreme security measures, have replaced the Strait of Malacca as the world's most pirate-ridden area.The attacks in the South China Sea have raised tensions in the area, which includes the disputed Spratly Islands. Six countries, including historical enemies China and Vietnam, claim the isolated islands which are regarded as a possible flashpoint for war.

Following 20 attacks off Taiwan and China in eight months, Russia sent naval ships to the waters to protect its shipping fleet. Some of the attacks were committed by Chinese authorities under the guise of cracking down on smuggling, shipping sources say. In January, six men dressed in Chinese military uniforms and wearing helmets fired rocket grenades on the cargo ship Arktis Star in the South China Sea. In April, a Chinese patrol boat used machine-gun fire in an attempt to stop the ship Beacon 210 kilometres southeast of Hong Kong.

'We are especially worried over the large number of cases in the East China Sea, where Chinese patrol boats intercepted and attacked and sometimes detained Russian vessels,' said Mazlan Abdul Samad, regional manager of the International Maritime Bureau, which runs an anti-piracy centre in Kuala Lumpur.

A recent report by the bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce set up in 1981 to fight maritime crime, said: 'The sensitivities between the People's Republic of China and Russia has led to a series of vessel interceptions, boardings anddetentions. This factor partly explains some of the reported incidents in North Asia off China, Taiwan and Korea. However, it is not the factor behind most of the incidents.' While the bureau said in a major report last year that law enforcement agencies should give higher priority to offences committed in their jurisdictions (only an estimated two per cent of attacks occur in international waters), a crackdown over 12 months has sharply reduced piracy in the Strait of Malacca. The measures followed agreement between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to co-ordinate patrols and other policing efforts, including use of spotter planes. Previously patrols needed permission from neighbouring governments to cross marine borders even if they were in pursuit of pirates.

The strait is a busy, narrow channel of water that separates peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia's Sumatra island and ends in Singapore. Piracy has plagued the strait for centuries. Despite several publicised arrests, most of the pirates (who are believed tobe Indonesians) remain free, although the stepped-up patrols and other measures have deterred further attacks.

There were only 14 piracy incidents in the Indonesia-Singapore-Malaysia triangle in the first eight months of this year, compared with 69 for the corresponding period in 1992. Southeast Asia accounted for all of the world's 107 recorded cases of piracy in 1991 and 73 of the total of 106 last year.

Methods used by pirates vary. Some shore-based gangs in powerful speedboats use grappling hooks and bamboo ladders to board ships. Some supertankers are up to 480 metres long, making it relatively easy to board undetected. The popularity of this commando-type raid has forced ship owners to consider using water hoses, flares, tear gas and barbed wire to repel would-be boarders. In many incidents, the captain and crew have been threatened with weapons, beaten and robbed. Shots were fired in 18 of the 83 attacks between January and August this year, the maritime bureau said. Hand grenades were used once.

In one of the most brutal attacks last year, the tanker Valiant Carrier was boarded off Indonesia's Bintin Island. As the pirates ransacked the ship, the navigating officer was knifed in the chest, arm and leg. The captain and his wife were beaten and the skull of their seven-month-old daughter fractured by a sword. In another incident, a supertanker carrying about 240,000 tonnes of crude oil was left cruising in the narrow Phillip Channel near Singapore after the crew had been robbed and tied up. The ship did not run aground or collide with another vessel.

Stealing entire ships is a multimillion-dollar industry. Stolen ships are re-registered with a new foreign flag of convenience. This is not hard to do in developing countries where paying bribes is common practice. The 'phantom' ship is then used to transport cargo which is sold to unsuspecting buyers.

Shipping investigators said last year they had evidence that phantom ships were used to steal at least 20 cargoes worth an estimated HK$3.6 billion. Some pirates wanting to avoid capture have sent out fake Mayday calls that a ship is sinking. Of the recorded piracy attacks in the first eight months of this year, 28 of the ships carried cargo, 14 were bulk carriers and eight were containers.

Mr Ellen said: 'The maritime industry is rightly outraged at this continuing situation and the time has come for something effective to be done to bring law and order back to the sea.'