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Robbers board vessel underway off Singapore

Pictured: commercial vessels anchored off the coast at Singapore. Anchored vessels are a favorite target of Asian maritime thieves. Photo: Shutterstock.

A crew sailing off the coast of Singapore had a close encounter with pirates late last week, according to a new report from ReCAAP, the south east Asian anti-piracy center.

A tug-and-barge was heading westbound about five miles southwest-by-west off the coast of Singapore on Sunday. That’s in the narrow strait between Singapore and Malaysia on one side and Indonesia on the other. The tug master reported by radio that six pirates were boarding the barge “Smit Cyclone”.

The tug master raised the alarm and mustered the crew. The pirates fled, taking some tools with them. No-one from the crew was hurt. Singapore’s coast guard was notified as were Malaysian authorities.

Piracy – a problem throughout Asia

Piracy in the Singapore Strait, and the wider region, continues to be problem for international shipping.

Threats range from simple theft, as in the robbery from the barge Smit Cyclone, up to kidnapping of crew and the theft of cargo.

As of April 20, 2019, six crew are in captivity after being kidnapped from vessels. The ReCAAP reports that the Philippine authorities are conducting military operations to rescue the crew.

A total of 66 people have been abducted in Sulu-Celebes sea areas (off the south-west coast of the Philippines) between March 2016 and April 2019, according to ReCAAP. Of the 66 people, six are still held, 34 have been released, 17 have been rescued and nine are dead.

Crewman was shot dead

The last kidnapping attack happened on December 05, 2018, when three men were abducted. Philippine military authorities attempted a rescue but, tragically, one crewmember was shot and died from wounds inflicted during the firefight. One of the two remaining crew drowned.

“As the threat of abduction of crew in the Sulu-Celebes Seas and waters off Eastern Sabah remains, ReCAAP … maintains its advisory… to all ships to re-route from the area, where possible,” the ReCAAP says in a statement.

There were three robberies committed against ships last month in the ReCAAP reporting area – two in the Singapore Strait and one off the north eastern coast of India.

Groups of attackers

During the first quarter of 2019 there were 13 incidents – 12 actual attacks and one attempted attack at various locations around Asia. In the Singapore Strait specifically, there were four attacks in the first quarter. All four incidents involved attacks by pirates attacking in groups ranging in size from two individuals up to 11 men.

Two trends can be noted from these four attacks. All four involved a vessel towing another marine craft – either a barge or a backhoe dredger. And pirates seem to be getting bolder as all attacks took place during the day.

“This deviates from the usual trend of incidents in Asia where [the] majority of incidents occur during [the] hours of darkness,” the ReCAAP said in a statement.

Piracy on the decline

During 2018 there were 76 incidents in Asia, of which 62 were actual attacks and 14 were attempted attacks.

The volume of pirate and armed robbery attacks reported in Asia is on the decline, however. The total number of incidents (which includes both actual and attempted attacks) in 2018 is 25 percent down on 2017. The number of actual incidents in 2018 is also down, by 31 percent, compared to 2017.

Masafumi Kuroki, executive director of ReCAAP, attributes the decline in local maritime crime to cooperation between law enforcement agencies and industry, and “timely reporting” by ships.