Pirates terrorize the high seas

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Today's pirates terrorize the high seas with an arsenal of high-tech weapons. BY KEN COTTRILL For Cynthia Smith, a routine day became a nightmare come true when a man came at her with a pipe. He landed a few blows, cracking her ribs, but she fought back, getting in a well-aimed kick that knocked her assailant off his feet. Smith then ran for help.

Just another senseless crime on a mean city street? Not exactly. Chief Officer Smith was at sea, aboard the oil tanker Olympic Runner, which was en route to Korea from Saudi Arabia. She was attacked by a pirate.

Minutes after the assault, Smith and the crew staged a counterattack. They got hold of high-pressure fire hoses, striking down the other marauders on deck with blasts of water. With the deck secured, they made their way to the captain's cabin, where he was ambushed by other machete-wielding raiders. They found him just in time. One of the pirates had cut through the captain's shirt and, with a knife pressed against his throat, demanded that he open the ship's safe. The pirates backed off when they saw Smith and the crew coming to the rescue. The criminals released the ship's master, slipped overboard and disappeared into the crowded Singapore Straits.

For most of us, having to battle pirates seems as unlikely as getting hit by lightning. But for Smith, who is now an instructor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, King's Point, New York, this attack wasn't exactly novel. In fact, it was the fourth time during her tour as first mate that she fought off marauders. "It went down as a minor incident," she says, reflecting on the 1991 raid. "I don't even know whether it was reported. They weren't as aggressive as pirates have become today."

Modern pirates, as ruthless as any who sailed hundreds of years ago, have hit the high seas with a vengeance. Now they attack from speedboats, armed to the hilt with automatic weapons, mortar shells and even antitank rockets. The Global Positioning System now guides them to their quarries, with radars helping them evade pursuing ships. There are even accounts of pirates boarding ships with computer printouts of cargo stored in specific locations. Jangay Ajinohon has seen just how aggressive modern pirates can be. Two years ago, while fishing off the Philippines, two speedboats approached his vessel. Four pirates opened fire with automatic rifles, killing all nine of his shipmates. The 50-year-old fisherman was grazed in the back of the head, but escaped while the raiders attached a line and stole his boat.

This attack, like all others, was governed by greed. And pirates strike where there are opportunities to steal fortunes. In centuries past, pirates raided the Caribbean. Today, they have expanded their operations to include heavily traveled sea lanes in Southeast Asia, the Far East and parts of Africa and South America.

And these days, piracy is more lucrative than ever. The potential profit from a single ship hijacking is $3 million, according to estimates by the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB). The agency, which is a branch of the International Chamber of Commerce that monitors trade-related crime, says these marauders average about five raids a year. Worldwide, the IMB says piracy attacks on merchant vessels have climbed steadily from 107 in 1991 to 175 in 1996, the last year for which records are available. Not included are attacks on yachts and boats, so nobody really knows how many civilian craft have been victimized. "It's underreported and always has been," says Eric Ellen, IMB's executive director. That's partly due to ship owners who are reluctant to report incidents because their insurance policies may not cover piracy, suggests Larry Khan, a staff attorney at the Center for Seafarers' Rights in New York City. Also, inefficient or undersourced local officials may overlook ship raids. "If you don't report it, then it didn't happen," says Thomas Fitzhugh, executive director of the Maritime Security Council in Houston, Texas. In June 1996, the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency singled out the Mosquito Bay area, between Jamaica and Nicaragua, as an emerging hot spot.

Part of the reason why some are lured into piracy is because it is easy work. "It's like taking candy from a baby," says Patrick Russi, quality and marine manager of Stolt Parcel Tankers in Houston, Texas. Russi says a Stolt-Nielsen parcel tanker was attacked one year ago in Rio de Janeiro by a well-armed group of about 20 men. The bandits boarded the ship commando-style, took all the cash and crew's valuables and then fled. High-sea robbery isn't especially risky, either. Few crews defend themselves in the same way as Smith and her shipmates. As a rule, seafarers are not armed. In fact, they aren't even trained in using small arms. Even if they were, it might be impossible to coordinate a defense. While the officers of today's merchant ships generally speak English, the crews use a mix of three, sometimes more, languages. And you can forget about any romantic notions of pirates being hunted down by the long arm of the law. Few pirates are ever caught, says Ellen, who adds that he can only recall one gang that was sentenced by a court of law. The four members of the Changco gang, pirates who plundered vessels off the Philippines, are serving life sentences in the New Bilibid prison in Manila.

Even the world's navies seem reluctant to intervene. Ellen cites an incident in 1995 when the freighter Hye Mieko was hijacked off Cambodia. The ship was forced to sail 1000 miles to Shamei in Kwangtung Province, China. The ship's owners had reported the crime just when their vessel was overrun. Not a single navy gave chase.

The U.S. Navy says its policy is to always respond to ships in distress. But because pirate attacks are swift and unpredictable, warships are often unable to intervene in time. Captain Sean Gibson, a spokesman for the U.S. Marine Corps–the branch of the military originally founded to combat pirates–says it no longer has a force to do this work.

What truly angers Ellen is that not even shoot-'em-up television news shows seem interested in piracy. "An aircraft seized by hijackers is big news," he laments, "but when a ship is taken, no one could care less."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 07, 2001

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