Pyongyang protests at sea raid

NORTH Korea yesterday claimed its sovereignty had been violated as more details emerged of a machine-gun attack on one of its ships near Hongkong.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said 14 pirates armed with automatic weapons jumped on board the ship just outside Hongkong waters on Wednesday night.

''Those bandits threatened our crewmen by brandishing their weapons and attempted to [steal] the ship in order to rob it of cars and cargo,'' the report said.

Faced with resistance from the 36-strong crew, the pirates left the vessel after two hours, but continued to chase it for more than 19 hours, firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the report continued.

''Crewmen of our ship were wounded and the stern, the funnel and the pilot room were riddled with hundreds of shots,'' KCNA said.

''This piracy is a grave crime encroaching upon the sovereignty of [North Korea] and endangering the lives of the crewmen.'' Hongkong officials yesterday complained to the official New China News Agency.

The 2,226-tonne Ko Mal Shan was last night steaming towards Nampo, near Pyongyang, with a cargo of cars and consumer goods.

The last of the four speedboats which had repeatedly strafed it with machine-guns finally left the scene near the southern Chinese port of Shantou at about 5 am.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin said China was investigating the attack.

Senior government sources said Hongkong might never find out whether the attack - first mounted about 15 kilometres south of Waglan Island - was an act of piracy or an official Chinese interception.

''We told them we wanted to know so we could try to help if the ship was under attack by pirates, but China has still told us nothing,'' one Security Branch official said.

''All we wanted to do at the start was prepare for a rescue if China was not involved. Our interest was in no way political.'' Another Hongkong official said China had since been told to do more to stop pirate attacks. But if it was an official interception, Hongkong's crucial free-port status was being put at risk.

The attack shattered the uneasy peace settling around Hongkong shipping since the last wave of violent interceptions, most against Vietnamese ships, ended in May.

Hongkong Shipowners' Association director Michael Farlie said it was now clear that even bone-fide shipping plying the China coast could expect tough scrutiny from China.

He had tried unsuccessful to get the Marine Department to internationalise the issue of possible official attacks on ships around the territory.

However, all references to official Chinese anti-smuggling raids in a department briefing to the International Maritime Organisation in May were deleted by the Foreign Office and Security Branch.