IMB wary of military-style rescues

Jan. 24, 2011 at 6:27 AM
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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- The International Maritime Bureau welcomed the recent capture of pirates but cautioned against navies engaging in armed assault of pirated ships.

Last week in two attacks, the navies of South Korea and Malaysia boarded pirated ships and took control of the vessels after gun battles with the pirates.

In the Malaysian operation, three of the seven pirates were wounded and the crew of 23 freed without harm.

However, during the South Korean operation, eight of the 13 pirates on board the tanker were killed and the others taken prisoner. The ship's crew of 21 was safe but the captain was shot in the stomach by a pirate and is reported in stable condition.

"The IMB commends the robust actions of the South Korean navy and renews its call for greater naval action in the fight against this brand of maritime crime," IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan said.

"We recognize the risks posed to crew in actions of this type and advise that navies only give the orders after consultation with a vessel's owners and flag state."

Mukundan said shipmasters and owners should report all attempted or suspicious incidents to the IMB's Piracy Reporting Center. In this way, governments and their navies can decide how to handle the situation, including any boarding action that can be done safely.

The Piracy Reporting Center has recorded 39 incidents, of which 31 are attributed to Somali pirates, already this year.

Around half of the Somali attacks have been on tankers, with bulk carriers, general cargo, container and vehicle carrier vessels being the other targets. Some local tug boats, fishing dhows and supply vessels also have been reported captured.

The South Korean operation involved the 1,500-ton chemical carrier Samho Jewelry with a crew of eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 Myanmar nationals.

It was hijacked Jan. 15 around 310 nautical miles off the coast of Oman. A South Korean destroyer caught up to the Malta-flagged tanker and shadowed it before sending in a team of commandos.

After the successful boarding, the South Korean military released a nearly 5-minute video of the incident shot from the destroyer alongside the tanker.

Commandos are seen readying to climb onto the vessel and gunshots are heard. Some commandos are seen entering the superstructure and coming out with crewmembers. Captured pirates are seen later kneeling on the deck in front of the commandos.

The Malaysian operation was a response to a distress call from the Malaysian-flagged Bung Laurel chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden. The navy ship arrived in time to do battle with pirates who had just boarded the vessel.

What happens to the captured pirates isn't decided.

The Malaysian and South Korean navies gave no indication of their plans.

"We will determine what we should do, whether we are going to bring them here to be tried or take any other appropriate action," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said after the news of the successful recapture of the vessel.

Despite the efforts of the IMB, whose Piracy Reporting Center has headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, the organization is concerned about the increase in attacks and hostage taking.

Last year there were 445 recorded pirate attacks, a 10 percent increase on 2009. Pirates took 1,181 hostages, the highest number since the IMB began started monitoring the area around the Gulf of Aden in 1991.

A recent incident could signal a worrying development in the tactics employed by Somali pirates, the IMB said earlier this month.

Suspected Somali pirates boarded a general cargo vessel but the attack was launched from what Mukundan said was a "mother ship," a previously captured fishing vessel. Six crew members -- two Danes and four Filipinos -- were removed from their ship and transferred to the hijacked fishing vessel.

Pirates have traditionally used small, often high-powered motor vessels that had limited range and space for goods and hostages.

But the use of mother ships means pirates have greater range and mobility into the Indian Ocean, away from African and Middle Eastern coastal waters. The pirates also have more space for hostages in the mother ships.

"While the use of hijacked vessels as mother ships is not a new phenomenon, the abduction of crew members could signal a significant new development," Mukundan said.

At least five large hijacked cargo ships and three fishing vessels have acted as mother ships in the past couple of months, he said. The four tankers and a general cargo vessel range from 5,000-72,000 tons.

More than 100 crew members from the hijacked cargo vessels are being forced to facilitate the attacks and in effect provide a human shield to potential intervention, the IMB said.

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