The trail of piracy that started in HK

THE start of a trail of deceit, piracy and death resulting in the gruesome discovery of the remains of 10 people in a rusting ship in a breaker's yard in China, lies with a Hong Kong company owed more than $3 million by the vessel's owner.

The mystery behind the Erria Inge highlights an increasing problem of piracy linked with organised crime syndicates operating in international waters.

The ship was bought and sold through a series of deals, some involving underworld connections who used bribery and numerous name changes to keep the Erria Inge beyond the law, exposing massive flaws in the system..

In late December, 10 decomposed bodies were found by workers at the Guangdong Shunde Shipwrecking Company when they started dismantling the 17,000 tonne vessel, which by then had been renamed the Hai Sin.

And until last week, Hong Kong's Parakou Shipping Limited, which was hired by a Singapore company acting on behalf of the Australian owner in 1990 and which is still owed more than US$400,000 (HK$3.12 million), had not heard of the ship since early 1991.

The deputy general manager at Parakou, Gary Macwhinney said the debt had been written off in February 1991 when the Erria Inge was first ''pirated'' from the Indian port of Bedi.

Mr Macwhinney said the ship was arrested by Indian authorities after Parakou started court proceedings in Bombay for payment of various fees and bills.

But the ship slipped out of port without repaying the debt. On February 28 that year, Parakou ''took it off the records'' and gave up on recovering the money.

''If a company is a one-ship company and once that asset slips through your grasp, the assets are gone,'' Mr Macwhinney said yesterday.

''We still show it on our books as a debt and we still want to collect it.'' He said his company became involved when Mr Thomas Tham, managing director of Singapore-based Erria Marine Pte Ltd, hired Parakou on March 31, 1990, to manage the ship on behalf of the Australian owner, Mr Erik Boas.

In a telephone interview with the Sunday Morning Post yesterday, Mr Tham said he left the company in April 1991, and that a man in Penang, Malaysia, took over the Erria Marine Pte Ltd, which later closed. The latter was now ''hiding from creditors''.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Boas, of Ourimbah on the Central Coast, traced the ship to Singapore and Thailand and through at least one name change before he lost track of it in October 1991.

Another Singaporean, Mr Richard Lim, said he bought and then resold the vessel two weeks later for scrap in November 1992 after it had been at anchor in international waters off the island state for a year.

The person he sold it to, who he declined to name, then sold it to the Shunde shipwreckers in December last year.