Task force call to help halt piracy

A TASK force should be established by Hongkong and China to tackle the growing piracy problem in the important shipping lanes of the South China Sea, a senior official at the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) suggested yesterday.

Mr Mohammed Zaini, a technical officer with the organisation's anti-piracy centre in Kuala Lumpur, said the territory must press the mainland to play a more active role in dealing with the threat posed by pirates preying on merchant ships in and around Hongkong waters because the situation was deteriorating.

''It would seem to me that whatever liaison there is between Hongkong and China at present, it isn't effective,'' he said.

''Piracy cases seem to be increasing in the area between Hainan Island and Hongkong while the problems in the Malacca Straits are diminishing.

''The boats are almost certainly coming from China so it is logical to address the problem there first. It is surely in Hongkong's interest to pressure China into getting tougher on this issue.'' Mr Zaini added: ''It is clear that whoever is behind these acts of piracy is using the fact that the Hongkong security organisations cannot operate out of their territorial waters apart from on search and rescue missions.

''The Hongkong authorities must be very frustrated by the situation and I am sure that they would like to be able to go out of the territorial waters in order to protect shipping.'' Mr Zaini said it would be ''interesting'' to see China's response to any approach by Hongkong to set up a joint maritime force.

''It is widely believed that undisciplined Chinese security people are to blame for at least some of the piracy cases in the northern area of the South China Sea.'' A Security Branch spokesman said China was already working with the territory on marine security.

He said so far this year, there had been two reported cases of piracy in Hongkong waters and eight incursions by Chinese security vessels into Hongkong waters.

The whereabouts of the three Vietnamese vessels that disappeared on Saturday after reporting that they were chased and boarded by Chinese security personnel was still unknown last night.

Mainland vessels have intercepted 12 Hongkong merchant vessels in international or Chinese waters so far this year.

''The Chinese authorities have come back with positive responses to our past requests for assistance and we feel this co-operation will continue,'' said the spokesman.

The director of the Hongkong Shipowners' Association, Mr Michael Farlie, said he has asked the IMB for a report into the incident in which a Romanian cargo ship was fired on by three fishing vessels in Chinese waters at the weekend.

He added that his request did not include an inquiry into what had happened to the Vietnamese ships, although he was concerned about any incident which interfered with merchant shipping.