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Rise in Murders, Kidnappings at Sea Makes Piracy a Top Naval Priority Worldwide

Assistant Editor

Sea Power
October 2004

The Nigerian naval escorts were of no help to Americans Ryne Hathaway or Denny Fowler. The pirates who attacked their boat on the Olero Creek in Nigeria’s Western Delta State April 23 gunned them down, along with five Nigerians.

Armed with Kalashnikov rifles, the pirates had drawn near the Americans’ vessel -- possibly using military-style dress as a ruse -- and demanded that the escorts throw down their arms. The escorts refused and the pirates opened fire. Hathaway and Fowler, both Texans, had gone to Nigeria in April as contractors for ChevronTexaco Corp. to assess the feasibility of resuming drilling operations that had been shut down due to escalating tribal violence.

Weeks later in the Strait of Malacca, a narrow channel between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula notorious for violent attacks on shipping, the Indonesian transport Ikan Murni was boarded by two dozen pirates armed with automatic weapons. Waiting near Berhala Island, the pirates fired on the ship and boarded. Twelve crewmembers jumped overboard and were later picked up by local fisherman.

The pirates, believed to be Aceh separatists in Indonesia, kidnapped the ship’s master and another crewmember, and abandoned the ship. They demanded a substantial ransom for crewmembers’ release, but authorities decline to say whether a ransom was paid. The owners of the Ikan Murni hired a tugboat to bring the ship back to shore, according to an account in “Tale of a Modern Pirate Gang” by piracy expert Mark Bruyneel.

Lawlessness on the High Seas

These incidents, and hundreds more like them each year, help explain why international piracy has become a top priority for military and police officials from Southeast Asia to Africa and the United States.

“The seas are unpoliced and unregulated and, therefore, attractive to those who want to exploit or abuse them,” said U.S. Navy Secretary Gordon R. England. Speaking in July at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., England said, “On average, more than one ship each day is attacked, robbed, hijacked or sunk.”

The situation grows worse each year, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), part of the Commercial Crime Services division of the International Chamber of Commerce. Recorded pirate attacks increased by 20 percent in 2003 alone, rising to a total of 445 incidents compared with 370 in 2002, according to IMB statistics. In these incidents, 21 seafarers are known to have been killed -- compared with 10 the previous year -- and 71 crew and passengers were listed as missing, IMB reported.

Prior to the killings of the American oil workers, 2004 had already gotten off to a bloody start. Four crewmembers of an oil tanker were shot dead by pirates in the Strait of Malacca off Indonesia’s Aceh province in February after the ship’s owner failed to pay a ransom for their release.

England put the overall increase in piracy incidents at “more than 56 percent in recent years.” The trend continues upward, he said, because criminal groups operate at sea “undetected and unchecked” and pose risks to U.S. interests abroad. England has spoken in recent months to the Naval War College’s International Maritime Symposium and the Inter-American Naval Conference to encourage closer cooperation between navies on issues such as piracy.

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England and others, including Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, are calling attention to the trend because piracy is an international crime and attempts to deal with it often butt heads with national sovereignty concerns. Aware of the political conflicts and the paltry amount of cooperation between nations, pirates cross borders with impunity to seek safe haven and sell their goods in foreign markets.

Bruyneel, who maintains an online database of piracy activity, writes of a pirate gang that for years has operated in the Strait of Malacca, stealing ships and their cargo, and selling the goods in Chinese ports.

The gang first came to the attention of regional authorities in 1995 after its attack on the Anna Sierra, a freighter that regularly carried cargo from Thailand to the Philippines. In September 1995, a hooded gang of pirates armed with machine guns took control of the ship, handcuffing and imprisoning the crew in the engine room. The crew sat in the room for two days while the pirates painted the ship and renamed it the Arctic Sea.

The pirates then lined up the crew on the deck of the ship, threatened them with their weapons, robbed them of valuables and threw them overboard without navigation equipment or food. Fortunately, the crew was discovered floating on rafts by Vietnamese fisherman.

The boat continued to the Chinese harbor of Beihei, where the pirates presented officials with false papers. They sold the cargo of sugar to traders at the port. The IMB offered a reward for their arrest, and Beijing authorities apprehended the gang. No charges were pressed, however, and the pirates were released two years later.

Soon thereafter, other ships plying the Strait of Malacca began disappearing. A vessel headed to Korea in December 1998 went missing a day after departing its homeport on North Sumatra. The ship was later spotted in Thailand with a new paint job, a new name and a new flag. Its 15 original crewmembers are still missing.


© 2004 Navy League of the United States. All rights reserved.

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