SEA ROUTES THREATENED

Asian nations cooperate in piracy battle

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The term pirates may conjure up romantic images in the minds of those who have read “Treasure Island,” but the reality of piracy today is no romance.

Modern-day pirates kill dozens of people and take hundreds more hostage every year on the high seas. Their actions threaten traffic on key sea routes in Southeast Asia, where about 75 percent of all acts of piracy in the world take place.

To combat the rise in piracy, a two-day international conference gets under way today at a Tokyo hotel. Maritime security officials from 15 Asian economies are participating in the forum.

A main focus of the conference will be how to build communication networks between investigative authorities in different economies in the region to deal with crimes that cross national borders, according to officials of the Transport Ministry and the Japan Coast Guard.

The international piracy conference, the first of its kind, was organized by the ministry in an effort to find better ways to combat armed robbery at sea.

The recent case of the freighter Alondra Rainbow highlights the need for effective measures to be implemented.

The Alondra Rainbow, carrying 7,000 tons of aluminum ingots, was hijacked by about 10 armed men shortly after it left Indonesia’s Kuala Tanjung port bound for Japan.

The Panama-registered freighter is owned by a Japanese company and was manned at the time by Japanese and Philippine crew members.

All the crew members, including the Japanese captain, were later rescued from a raft drifting off Thailand.

The Alondra Rainbow was eventually found in the Indian Ocean and the people on board were arrested.

“(The Alondra Rainbow) is the latest case that keenly reminds us of the importance of close international cooperation,” Parliamentary Vice Transport Minister Koki Chuma said in March at a meeting heralding the conference.

Megumi Masuda, general manager at the marine division of the Japanese Shipowners’ Association, said organized crimes such as sea hijackings increased in the late 1990s.

In 1991 and 1992, only one hijacking was reported to the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce, but that figure leapt to 17 in 1998.

Total reported attacks also rose from 107 incidents in 1991 to 285 in 1999, Masuda said.

Masuda, however, added that this figure probably represents only the tip of the iceberg, because the targets of pirate attacks tend to be reluctant to report incidents to local authorities.

Following reports, vessels are often ordered to remain at the location of the crime while an investigation is conducted, costing the firms a great deal of money — sometimes totaling more than their loss from the attack.

“A delay of even one day costs (a shipping company) a lot, perhaps 1 million yen or 2 million yen,” Masuda said.

In addition, only a fraction of the perpetrators have been arrested in the past, which Masuda said also makes companies more reluctant to inform the authorities.

But given the increasing damage caused by pirates, shipping companies may now be more determined to cooperate with investigative authorities and local police.

Maritime officials should also promote international joint investigations, Masuda said.

Senior Japan Coast Guard officials said the international conference will focus on measures to enhance communication between maritime security authorities of the nations attending the conference.

But measures that require new legislation or treaties will probably be excluded due to the limited time to prepare such drafts.

The participants are expected to pledge further cooperation during the conference, they said.