HK urged to defend ship lanes

HONGKONG is coming under pressure to take a lead in defending the vital shipping lanes in the ''South China Triangle'' from the growing threat of piracy.

Mr Mazlan Abdul Samad, who runs the International Maritime Bureau's (IMO) Far East piracy centre in Malaysia, said that as the world's busiest container port, Hongkong had the most to lose.

However, the territory had more resources than the Philippines or China to fight the threat in the seas south of the territory.

He said the action this week of the Royal Hongkong Auxiliary Air Force (RHKAAF) aircraft in ''buzzing'' suspected pirates to stop them attacking a Chinese freighter showed the territory's potential.

Hours earlier, the pirates reportedly fired on large cargo ships with automatic rifles in the same area between Hainan Island and the north reef of the Paracel Islands.

Ships sailing through the area have been warned by the Marine Department and the Hongkong Shipowners' Association to maintain full speed with crews on full alert.

Mr Mazlan said government action could go further. It should urgently consider more co-operation with China and the Philippines and the creation of regular patrols of the triangle between Hainan Island, north Luzon and Hongkong.

The RHKAAF's rescue capability already covers much of the area.

''It's an area that was insignificant before but now things appear to be picking up as the threat in the Malacca Straits declines,'' Mr Mazlan said.

''We've had seven or eight serious attacks since last September and the area seems to be getting more dangerous.

''The one common factor has been the use of firearms to stop ships.'' The Director of Marine, Mr Tony Miller, yesterday refused to comment on the incidents or what threat piracy posed to the Hongkong shipping industry.

However, senior department sources said piracy could do irreparable damage to Hongkong's reputation as a free port, pushing up freight costs and insurance premiums.

Owners and charters could start avoiding the area once crews became reluctant to sail.

Sources pointed to fears among crew aboard the Marine Peace after one Filipino seaman was shot in the back by suspected pirates just seven miles from Waglan Island on Monday night.

The Panamanian-registered ship eventually continued on its voyage from Hongkong to Taiwan yesterday after the captain spent two days reassuring crew they would be safe.

The injured man, bosun Mr Amador Nieves, 46, rejoined his colleagues for the voyage after he was released from Queen Mary Hospital, where he underwent surgery.

''He was struck only by the casing of a bullet and thankfully his wounds were not that serious,'' said Father Peter Ellis of the Mariners' Club.

Senior Marine Officer (search and rescue), Mr Trevor Berry, said this week's incidents showed the need to find ''international solutions to an international problem''.

''The north reef incident represents a possible spread of the growing tendency of piracy in Southeast Asia,'' Mr Berry said.

''The proliferation of piracy on any trade routes is something of great concern.'' Shipowners' director Mr Michael Farlie said it was the first time the IMO directives had been put to such dramatic effect anywhere in the world.

''I'm not sure if we're looking at isolated incidents or a growing trend but it certainly needs monitoring.

''There's a lot of interests and a lot of uncertainty as to who owns what in that area,'' he said.

''With a lot of activity in exploration and a quasi-military presence, there's room for rascals to exploit.'' The area was not only used by regional shipping, but was a key international route linking Asia with the rest of the world.