KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA, November 1, 2003 (STAR) Philippine ports are sites of a record number of pirate attacks, the maritime watchdog International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said yesterday.

As pirate attacks on seafarers worldwide hit a new high in the first nine months of the year, the IMB said the ports of Manila, Callao, Chennai, Chittagong, Dakar and Lagos continued to record a high number of attacks.

The maritime watchdog said Indonesia accounted for 25 percent of the total, possibly due to the separatist violence in Aceh province. Bangladesh was ranked second for piracy with 37 attacks, Nigeria third with 28, while the busy Malacca Straits saw 24 attacks.

The IMB said 344 attacks or attempted attacks on ships at sea, at anchor or in port were reported globally — compared to 271 in 2002 and 253 in 2001.

"This is the highest number of attacks for the first nine months of any year since the IMB began compiling statistics in 1991," Pottengal Mukundan, London-based IMB director, said in a statement.

"There is a clear increase in the use of guns and knives in the attacks," he added.

The number of crew killed increased to 20 as compared to six in 2002. The number of attacks using guns rose to 77 from 49, the IMB said in a report by its Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

At least 43 crew members are listed as missing due to the pirate attacks.

The IMB said "the increase in violence is of great concern," and identified Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia as prone to pirate attacks.

Indonesian waters were the most pirate-prone with 87 incidents in which 85 seafarers were taken hostage and two killed.

Noel Choong, IMB’s regional manager, said that the separatist violence in Indonesia’s Aceh province could be a contributing factor to the sharp rise in attacks.

"We suspect Free Aceh Movement rebels are behind the spate of attacks and kidnapping aimed to fund their military campaign," he said.

Choong said lack of patrols by the Indonesian navy contributed to the ease of pirate attacks.

Indonesian forces are in the sixth month of an all-out offensive aimed at wiping out the rebels, who have been fighting for an independent state on the northern tip of Sumatra since 1976.

In one case in August, eight pirates armed with machine guns and a grenade launcher opened fire and boarded the Malaysian-registered Penrider tanker from a fishing boat.

They sailed the ship into Indonesian waters and took the master, chief engineer and a crewman hostage, leaving the ship to continue its passage.

The three seamen were later released after an undisclosed ransom was paid.

"In most cases, the attacks are thought to be led by Aceh rebels whose main purpose is to raise money to fund their cause by holding hostages for ransom," the IMB said.

Choong said the use of ships in terrorist attacks was also a concern and Malaysian marine authorities had begun strict screening of ships and their crews.

"The police have been ordered to check a ship’s origin, the nature of its cargo and its crew list to ascertain if any crew had any particular political or extremist background," he said.

Muhamad Muda, Malaysia’s marine police chief, said some of the ships carried dangerous materials such as chemicals and if they were hijacked they might be useful for terrorists acts.

"We will consider all ports high risk," he added. — AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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