Phantom vessels the latest tactic in Asian piracy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 July, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 July, 1994, 12:00am

PHANTOM ships, using fake documentation, are hijacking cargos from ports across East Asia in the latest twist to piracy in the seas of East Asia, according to maritime officials.

''It is a problem which has accelerated,'' said Eric Ellen, executive director of the commercial crime services division of the International Chamber of Commerce.

At least US$200 million a year worth of cargo is being hijacked by these phantom ships, Mr Ellen said after a two-day conference on piracy.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has investigated 20 phantom ships in recent years, including five cases under investigation.

''It is a tremendous problem for insurers,'' he said.

Most of the ships are registered in Honduras and Panama and take cargo that is easy to dispose of, such as timber and minerals, said IMB deputy director Jayant Abhyankar.

In one of the latest cases, the Jeorge I sailed from Ningbo port in February with a cargo of electrical cable bound for Jakarta and has not been seen since.

In April last year, a cargo ship named Harpers loaded timber in Indonesia, destined for South Korea.

After an investigation in six countries, the ship eventually was found in Bangkok and the cargo located in China, Mr Abhyankar said.

''That is a typical example of a phantom ship,'' he said. ''Since then we have investigated four more cases.'' Overseas gangs of Chinese operating out of Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok are running the phantom ships, Mr Ellen said.

''They are experienced in shipping and documentation.'' The gangs have an ''underground banking system'' and are also heavily involved in smuggling people out of China, he said.

Law enforcement agencies have not yet found a way to stop the menace, other than to appeal to countries where the ships are falsely registered to crack down.

''If they are unable or unwilling to investigate, then we must ask ourselves why are we allowing these flag states to continue (registering ships),'' Mr Ellen said.

''But I don't think it is a major threat,'' he said. ''They (the gangs) are not so greedy that they need to do more than five or six a year.'' Piracy of the more traditional kind, in which raiders plunder ocean-going vessels at sea, is on the decline, he said.

Only 42 cases have been reported worldwide in the first six months of this year, against 75 in 1993 and 83 the year before.

The seas around China, a hot spot last year, have been much safer this year since the regional piracy centre in Kuala Lumpur called attention to Chinese naval vessels detaining ships and confiscating cargo, Mr Ellen said.

''There has been quite a marked decline in piracy and illegal detention of ships in the South China Sea. No doubt this is due to action taken by the Chinese government,'' he said.

Beijing has told maritime officials that in only a few instances was there any ''misconduct'' on the part of its naval forces.

The other cases were anti-smuggling operations or pirates masquerading as Chinese naval personnel, Mr Ellen said.

The Malacca Straits has shown an even more dramatic decline in piracy.

The straits, which link the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, was free of piracy last year after recording 200 cases in 1991, Mr Ellen said.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore began joint patrols of the waterway nearly two years ago.