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'Indian waters are fairly safe'

Last updated on: November 16, 2005 17:16 IST
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Jayant Abhyankar discusses piracy and terrorism in the concluding part of an exclusive telephone interview from Essex with Assistant Managing Editor Archana L Masih. Abhyankar is deputy director of the International Maritime Bureau, a specialised division of the International Chamber of Commerce. Founded in 1981, the IMB takes a leading role in countering maritime fraud, piracy and related problems.

The Pirates of Somalia

With terrorism on the rise, where even a military ship like the USS Cole was attacked, what are the security concerns of commercial and passenger ships?

First of all, we have seen no corelation between terrorism and piracy. They are two different phenomenon altogether.

So far the ship owners are concerned, they are more worried about piracy than terrorism. The new trend is of kidnapping and ransom of crews because ships these days carry less money. Because technology has advanced and they don't need to carry so much cash. So pirates are going after human beings than the ship's cash which used to be the traditional target.

According to your statement 259 crew members were taken hostage, 10 kidnapped and 12 still missing in separate incidents this year. What are the most dangerous sea routes? What is the fate of the hostages?

Luckily this year, apart from the 12 missing there have been no deaths. But the year before, there were 30 people killed.

Where did this happen?

It was all over, really but mostly in South East Asia, in Indonesian waters.

Were the hostages returned?

Yes, when the ransom was paid they were returned

In terms of money, what is the amount that changes hands?

You are looking at anything between 50,000 USD to a million dollars per incident. So it's a large amount.

Where is the hostage risk most rampant?

Somalia, the Malacca Straits and Indonesian waters. There's a difference in Indonesian waters and the Malacca Striats, the people whom they seize are mostly local -- from Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines. In Somalia, they will capture any crew that is passing by.

What has been the response of the Indonesian government, because as opposed to Somalia, there is a functioning government there?

In some circles they refuse to agree that there is a problem. They see it as petty theft but in general there is more awareness and recognition of the problem and they are carrying out various initiatives. There are joint patrols between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. So there are those initiatives being launched.

Do you see security being beefed up in that area?

Yes, that's right. In fact the Joint War Committee of Lloyd's Market Association of London underwriters recommended a war risk premium for the Malacca Straits. That has certainly upset the countries in the area and they have enhanced security measures. As a result we have seen a decline because of that, the last attack there was in June. That has certainly had an impact.

How safe are Indian waters?

Indian waters are fairly safe. Because there's a very effective Coast Guard. The only incidents you see are in Chennai or Cochin or some into the Arabian Sea. They are mostly thefts, rather than piracy. There's hardly anything serious that one needs to worry about.

Has it been confirmed whether the attack on the luxury liner Seabourn was a pirate or terrorist attack?

We feel it was a straightforward piracy attack. We feel pirates did not realise it was a cruise ship with so many people on board. They attacked at night, so they would have just seen a ghost shadow. I think if they had realised things would be different because there were six pirates against 300 people.

After 9/11 people's perception has changed. I think if they are posed with a terrorist threat after what happened on 9/11 they will take matters in their own hands and go against these people.

We don't think it was a terrorist attack. If so, it would have been planned in a different way.

What is the system for enforcing the law in such attacks in international waters? How are the guilty punished?

In theory, if a pirate is caught at sea then every country has the right to capture him and try him in their own country but in practice it doesn't happen because ships are reluctant to get involved. You have the mighty Coalition forces not far from there and they have not been effective excepting in one or two cases, they have taken action. I think their priorities are different.

Is it correct that since the US counter terrorism task force for the Horn of Africa is based in Djibouti, which borders Somalia, the US military responded to Seabourn's SOS?

We are not aware of that. They went through the normal channel. They sent a distress message. We were notified in Kuala Lumpur (IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre is in Kuala Lumpur. Abhyankar was responsible for setting it up), we alerted all the other areas, like the US Coast Guard, US Navy HQ in Baharain. We did our part.

What does the captain do when pirates attack a ship at sea? What is the system of seeking help?

You can only seek help from the local policing agency or the navy or the coast guard. By the time they arrive, it is usually too late. If at all they arrive, because they have a lot of sea room -- it is unlike a land-based situation. Usually the attacks last not more than hour, by then they are away. There is very little help from anyone.

The ships are largely on their own then?

You can take precautions. We issue advisories to a piracy reporting centre every morning to all ships in the world. Like Somalia, we have been saying for so many months now -- keep well clear. Now we have increased it to 200 nautical miles so any ship that goes close is at risk and asking for trouble.

In fact, there was another attack on November 8, where the crew was seized and the ship kept hostage near the Somalian coast. In fact, there have been four more attacks . So the situation is alarming.

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