Warning on pirate threat to Asia route

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am

Hong Kong shipowners have warned that heavily armed Somali pirate gangs using large merchant ships as mother vessels could choke global trade between Asia and the Middle East and Europe unless governments take tougher action.

Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, said pirates had already attacked and seized ships off the west coast of India. The warning comes as international shipping industry organisations today launch a six-point plan calling on governments to mount a more robust military approach to tackle the piracy menace.

'Who's to say they can't go through the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea?' Bowring said.

He pointed out merchant ships were sailing further south around the Cape of Good Hope from Asia to Europe where possible to avoid pirates further north where ships are being attacked on a daily basis. Ships heading from the Gulf to Asia attempt to hug the Indian coast to avoid attack.

Asked if pirates could threaten the Malacca Strait, the key sea route from Asia to Europe, Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, said: 'It's not to say it's impossible. Pirates are coming closer.'

With sufficient fuel, ocean-going mother vessels 'can go anywhere', he said, but the Malacca Strait was heavily patrolled by naval and coast guard ships from Malaysia, Indonesia and other nearby states.

The international action blueprint adopted by global tanker, dry cargo and seamen's organisations calls for increased naval forces in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden region and action against pirate mother ships. These bodies include the ship owners' group the Baltic and International Maritime Council, tanker group Intertanko, the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers Federation. They also want all captured pirates prosecuted and punished, better protection for crews and criminalisation of organisers and financiers of piracy networks.

Bowring said the 'piracy situation has changed and changed dramatically' in the past few months and owners, initially opposed to armed guards onboard, now supported the idea. Several shipowners and managers had urged prosecution and execution of convicted pirates.

Pirates had become more violent, he said, killing, torturing and seriously injuring seamen. They were also more heavily armed, more daring and better informed. And while a move into the South China Sea might sound improbable, he pointed out that pirates had hijacked large merchant ships and subsequently used them and coerced their crews to attack and help seize other vessels.

Specialist consultancy Risk Intelligence has identified five large ships, including three tankers, hijacked and subsequently used in further hijackings since November. These big mother vessels allowed pirates to roam over a wider area, with attacks now 2,400 kilometres from Somalia. They also provided a stable platform for pirates 'to go alongside and fire down' on other ships, Bowring said.

The ransoms paid had allowed pirates to acquire heavy weapons that could be mounted on large mother vessels and may eventually be used to fire on helicopters sent to rescue vessels under attack, he said.

Several ships owned and registered in Hong Kong have been attacked, including the 319,000 deadweight tonne supertanker Starlight Venture, which had encountered pirates twice. The ship, including the bridge, was peppered with nearly 100 bullet and grenade holes during the first attack, which it evaded.