Pirates Flourish on Asian Seas - Seizure of Indonesian Freighter Illustrates Growing Anarchy

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ABOARD THE MV INABUKWA -- Bound, blindfolded and stripped down to his underwear, Hasbullah Zain trembled on the narrow wooden board.

"Jump," growled one of his captors, poking a gun barrel into Zain's back. "Jump into the water."

Four hours earlier, Zain had been skippering the Inabukwa, a hulking cargo ship, as it headed through Indonesian waters with a load of tin ingots, zinc and white pepper. Without warning, a dozen pirates armed with pistols and machetes stormed his ship. Intent on stealing the Inabukwa and its cargo, the pirates forced Zain and his crew onto a rickety speedboat.

After zipping away for an hour and a half, the pirates stopped the speedboat and curtly announced that their victims would be walking the plank.

Being the captain, Zain was up first. "As I stood on the edge, I thought we were surely going to die," he recalled in a recent interview. "How were we going to swim in the ocean with our hands tied and our eyes blindfolded?"

But at the very moment the stocky veteran sailor thought he was doomed, he realized that he and his crewmen just might survive. As soon as he entered the water, Zain felt a sharp pain in his feet. "We were on a coral reef," he said with a broad smile. "It was shallow water."

Maritime officials say what happened to the Inabukwa is not unique, but it is unusual that the crew lived to recount an ordeal that illuminates a surging crime wave on the high seas.

Not since the 17th and 18th centuries, when cutlass-wielding buccaneers like Captain Kidd and Henry Morgan terrorized the Caribbean, has piracy on the world's oceans been as rampant as it is now. Last year, the International Maritime Bureau recorded 469 attacks on ships, an almost fivefold increase since 1990. Seventy-two seamen were killed in incidents last year, compared with just three in 1999, according to the maritime bureau.

Most of the attacks have occurred in Asia, where economic and political turmoil have resulted in virtual anarchy on the seas. The sprawling Indonesian archipelago, the impoverished coast of Bangladesh and the heavily trafficked Malacca Strait -- which links the Pacific and Indian Oceans -- are home to gangs of ruthless marine bandits who now commit almost three-quarters of the world's seajackings.

Modern pirates are terrorizing cargo vessels for many of the same reasons as their rum-chugging, peg-legged predecessors: financial desperation and a sense of impunity. Most Asian countries have not fully recovered from the economic crash that began four years ago. Armed insurgencies, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, have distracted naval and coast guard units. And despite a raft of maritime treaties, international waters still are the no man's land of the global economy.

With ships transporting 90 percent of the world's freight, almost half of which passes through Asian waters, industry executives and government officials warn that the increase in piracy poses a significant threat to international commerce. Various estimates have pegged the cost of the attacks and other maritime fraud at as much as $16 billion a year.

Many of today's pirates are members of international criminal syndicates that use satellite phones, global positioning systems, forged documents and automatic weapons to stage meticulously planned heists of mammoth freighters.

As they did centuries ago, cargo ships often carry a trove of lucrative commodities -- no longer doubloons, nutmeg and silk, but jet fuel, palm oil and plywood -- that can easily be fenced on the black market.

And then there is the ship. After killing or otherwise ejecting the crew, pirates often will repaint and rename the vessel, which they then sell or use to steal new loads of cargo from unsuspecting merchants who charter the ship.

That was the Inabukwa's fate.

Pirates Come Aboard As dawn broke over the azure Karimata Strait on March 15, Zain ordered his crew to pull anchor, crank up the engines and set his ship on a northerly course to Singapore from its berth on the Indonesian island of Bangka.

It should have been a routine, 18-hour run. So by nightfall, with calm seas and good visibility, Zain retired to his cabin to finish some paperwork, while most of the crew members made their way to the mess to eat fried rice and watch a movie.

Shortly after dusk, a small wooden speedboat began to tail the Inabukwa, bouncing through the freighter's wake, safely in the blind spot of its radar system. At 7:45 p.m., the speedboat gunned its engines and pulled up on the cargo ship's port side. Tossing a grappling hook over the metal railings on the deck, a dozen men wearing balaclavas hoisted themselves aboard.

The intruders charged onto the bridge and into Zain's cabin. Brandishing their weapons, they told Zain that as of that moment, they were in control of the Inabukwa.

"They warned me, 'Do what we say and don't try to fight back,' " Zain recalled. "They said that if we disobeyed them, they wouldn't hesitate to kill us."

The pirates marched Zain and the men on the bridge down to the mess, where all 21 crew members had their hands bound with rope. They were forced to sit on the floor and told to stare at their feet. Zain said a few of the invaders ransacked the crew's belongings, stealing money and mobile phones.

"They robbed us of everything we had," Zain said, recounting his story over a pack of clove cigarettes and sweet coffee in the Jakarta office of PT Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia, the state-run shipping line that owns the Inabukwa. Company officials said his account has been verified by crew members.

Two hours later, two of the pirates guarding the crew hauled Zain and his radio officer up to the bridge to talk to the menacing, middle-aged man in charge of the operation. "He asked us how to steer, how to use the radios," Zain said. "He wanted to know how to use the other equipment on the bridge, and he wanted the maps."

To Zain, 44, an affable, animated man who has worked on ships since he was in his teens, it was clear that the pirate leader was "an amateur sailor." But it also was apparent that he was not just interested in the crew's wallets. He wanted the 980-ton ship and the cargo, which was worth $2.1 million.

That worried Zain. He had heard enough stories about what happens to seamen when pirates want the ship. After the tanker Global Mars was seized in February 2000, its crew was bound, blindfolded and dumped into lifeboats with no food or water. The crew was discovered five days later in the Andaman Sea, off the coast of Thailand, suffering from severe dehydration. Zain knew of dozens of other recent incidents where the crew had never been seen again.

After a few more brusque questions, the pirate leader dispatched Zain and the radio officer back to the dining room. Fifteen minutes later, the leader entered the dining quarters and ordered the Inabukwa's crew to be stripped down to their underwear and blindfolded. Then he ordered them to be taken to the deck.

"By then, we were very scared," Zain said. "I thought they were going to kill us and throw us overboard."

Instead, the pirates forced the crew onto the speedboat, where they were crammed into a tiny cargo hold. Then they were forced to walk the plank.

After finding their footing atop the coral reef, the crew waited for an hour before untying their hands and removing their blindfolds. At first light, they discovered they had been dropped just a few yards from land. But it was an uninhabited patch of sand not much larger than a football field, with no vegetation except for a few coconut palms. The pirates had left them with a can of water, some matches and a few packages of instant noodles, but nothing with which to summon help.

Two days later, with the water depleted and some of the sailors predicting they would die from thirst, they spotted two fishing boats in the distance. They shouted and swam out, hoping to be rescued, but the fishermen initially refused, saying that they didn't believe the crew's story. They relented only after Zain agreed to pay $600.

"They told me they were worried that we might be pirates," Zain said. "I don't blame them. These days, you can't trust anybody on the ocean."

A New Crew A day after the Inabukwa was hijacked, Ade Sumarlin, 24, an unemployed sailor, said he received a phone call from a crew broker offering him $2,000 to pilot a ship from the waters off Singapore to the northern Philippines.

To Sumarlin, who was itching to get back to sea, the job was too good to pass up. So early the next morning, he took a plane from Jakarta to an Indonesian island a few miles south of Singapore. That night, he, the broker and six other unemployed sailors boarded a small speedboat that traveled southward for about four hours before rendezvousing with a cargo ship named the Chungsin.

Once he boarded, he said, the first thing he noticed was that the ship was in a disarray. "It was a mess," he said. "All the compartments had been damaged."

And the ship had no registration papers.

Sumarlin said he was leery, but the broker, who went by the name Renco, told him not to worry. The ship, Renco said, had just been sold. He told Sumarlin that he would receive the proper documentation when he arrived in the Philippines. Then, Renco departed along with three Chinese-speaking men who had been tending the ship.

For the next seven days, Sumarlin said he stayed in radio contact with Renco, who guided the freighter toward Salomague, a remote fishing town in the Philippines that is known as a favorite place for smugglers to land with motorcycles and electronic goods. Renco instructed him to dock and prepare to transfer the cargo to another ship that was waiting outside the harbor.

But when Sumarlin pulled into the port, the Philippine coast guard decided to conduct a routine inspection of the ship. They became suspicious right away. The name Chungsin was crudely lettered in white paint on the hull, while the embossed name Inabukwa appeared to have been hastily painted over. When officers asked for the registration papers, Sumarlin did not have anything to offer them.

When the coast guard officers left to phone their base, Sumarlin attempted to leave. He ordered the gangplank and mooring lines removed, but by the time they had turned on the engines, the coast guard officers had returned -- with orders to impound the ship and arrest the crew. A navy patrol craft appeared a few minutes later and trained its guns on the freighter's bridge.

Maritime officials say it is rare for a hijacked vessel to be recovered and for participants in the crime to be arrested. Usually, they say, such freighters become "phantom ships."

"They will put the ship on the international market for charter," said Noel Choong, director of the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center. "Then once it is loaded, they will steal the cargo again. It becomes a vicious cycle."

Shipping companies contend that the problem could be stemmed with more naval and coast guard patrols of known pirate haunts, particularly in Indonesia, where more than a quarter of the world's attacks occurred last year. But thus far, maritime specialists said, the Indonesian government has done little to address the issue.

Indonesian officials, in turn, say they lack fast patrol boats. They also blame shipping firms for not reporting incidents faster. "It can take days before we are told about an attack," said Adm. Putu Ardana, the naval commander for western Indonesia. "By that time, the pirates have disappeared."

Other countries, particularly Japan, which transports enormous amounts of cargo through the seas of Southeast Asia, have offered to send armed patrol boats to the region. But Indonesia has refused to allow them in its territorial waters, calling it a breach of sovereignty. The government also has forbidden freighter crews to carry arms.

As a consequence, ships are trying to do what little they can to protect themselves when they pass through the Malacca Strait and other dicey parts of the Indonesian archipelago. They have increased the number of people keeping watch on deck at night. They have set up high-pressure water hoses to douse approaching speedboats. And they gun the engines.

"It's like traveling down the street in a bad neighborhood," an executive with a major international shipping line said. "You go fast and you don't stop for anything."

'Sophisticated Operation' Sumarlin and his six crewmen are still under armed guard, confined to the ship, which remains docked at Salomague. The Indonesian government wants them extradited to Jakarta, but Philippine officials said they are not willing to part with them until they have finished their inquiry.

Investigators have run into dead ends in their effort to track down others responsible for the incident. Indonesian officials said Renco has fled his house in Jakarta, reportedly for Hong Kong. And the second ship, which was anchored off Salomague, slipped away during the inspection of the Inabukwa.

Philippine authorities said both ships were headed for China. They said they assume the syndicate that organized the attack wanted to transfer the cargo to the other ship before selling it to reduce suspicions that it was stolen.

"This was a very sophisticated operation," said Lt. Cmdr. Felipe Macababad, a senior coast guard official. "It appears to have been elaborately planned."

Zain recently traveled to Salomague with his crew to prepare the Inabukwa to head back out to sea. In a few weeks, he plans to resume the journey to Singapore to finally deliver the cargo.

It's a trip that will once again take him through pirate-infested waters.

"After what we have been through, I don't think anyone will be able to sleep," he said. "Everyone will be on deck, keeping watch."

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, June 18, 2001; Page A01

2001 The Washington Post Company http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A12750-2001Jun17.html


-- Rich Marsh (marshr@airmail.net), June 22, 2001


Friend of mine used to work as mate and then captain of tankers going through those waters. Pirates have been a problem for decades, he says. Captains of U.S. flag vessels didn't much care what the Indonesian govt said about arming crews -- he said they had a weapons locker aboard that they stocked from an arms bazaar in Pakistan, held everything up to RPGs and a 50-caliber machinegun.

-- Cash (Cash@andcarry.com), June 22, 2001.

<<"The government also has forbidden freighter crews to carry arms">>

Brilliant idiocy. A logical extension of the denial of the basic right to self-defense. In other words, the government is saying they are expendable sheep.

<< U.S. capts ignore the no weapons rule >>

Cash, good for them.

I have read magazine articles (including a multi-part series in "Soldier of Fortune," I think it was last year?) about this problem. Apparently it has been increasing in recent years.

There are a few private companies that specialize in sending mercenaries to protect ships in those waters. The technical problem of stationing armed persons at the rear and sides of the ship to repel boarders isn't hard at all, really; it's the willingness of companies and governments that's lacking.

And meanwhile, the poor crews (and I mean poor in every sense) are sacrificed. Disgusting.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), June 22, 2001.

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