Oil piracy on the rise in South China Sea

Apr 28, 1998 02:00 AM

Oil piracy carried out by sophisticated and well-connected syndicates is a growing menace to tankers in the South China Sea.
The pirates, often armed with assault rifles, use speedboats to board ships and are able to organise ship-to-ship transfers of fuel, said Noel Choong, regional manager for the Regional Piracy Centre, which is part of the International Maritime Bureau.
Sophisticated networks meant they can dispose of oil worth millions of dollars around the region, he added.
Choong has said that world-wide hijacking cases had risen to 14 in 1997 from 5 in 1996 with about half of those committed last year taking place in Southeast Asia.
Oil traders said diesel fuel was the preferred loot of the pirates because buyers were easy to find in the region's thriving black market.
Choong has said that the incidence of piracy had grown in the South China Sea because of insufficient policing in the area.
"If there are patrols from the navies, these people with their M-16 (rifles) would be scared to come out," he has said.
He has said that piracy in the Malacca Straits, rampant in the early nineties, had been stamped out thanks to joint patrols by the navies of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. "In 1991 the Malacca Straits were one of the hardest hit. Last year there were none," he has said.
Choong has said the pirates' growing sophistication was shown by their latest suspected seizure - the 6,718 gross tonne tanker Petro Ranger - which was 3 times the size of the previous biggest tanker hijacked.
The Malaysian-flagged Petro Ranger was carrying 11,000 tonnes of diesel and kerosene worth $ 1.5 mm when it went missing on April 17. It had a crew of 21. Malaysian and Philippine authorities stepped up the search for the missing tanker after reported sightings of a similar looking vessel.
He has said that lately, two other tankers, both carrying diesel fuel, had been hijacked and had the cargo stolen.
Choong has said that the first tanker hijacked was the 1,479 gross tonne Motor Tanker Atlanta 95, laden with around 3,000 tonnes of diesel fuel worth about $ 500,000.
The Atlanta left Singapore for Indonesia with a crew of 18 on November 17, and was hijacked as it was sailing through the Riau Straits. The pirates manned the Indonesian-flagged tanker and took it to the Gulf of Thailand, where the entire cargo was transferred to another unknown tanker, Choong has said.
The pirates sailed the tanker for 3 more days before abandoning the vessel on December 7. The crew forced their way out of a locked cabin and were later rescued unharmed.
Choong has said that the pirates had destroyed all of the tankers' communications equipment and the navigational charts.
In the second case, a Honduran-flagged tanker, the Motor Tanker Tioman 1, was hijacked in January off Pulau Aur on the east cost of Malaysia as it was heading towards the Gulf of Thailand.
"Pirates boarded the tanker armed with knives, pistols and rifles," he has said.
The pirates took 800 tonnesof the tankers' 2,500 tonne diesel cargo and left on the same day.
Choong has said that the pirates spoke a mixture of Asian languages including Malay, Thai, Chinese, Burmese and English so it was difficult to pin down their nationalities.
He has said there were a few pirate attacks late last year near the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. The pirates stole the crew's belongings and pumped out water and diesel fuel from the vessels.

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