SINGAPORE — A band of pirates in jungle green garb waited quietly in the narrow channel until the lights of the container ship pierced the darkness.
In a maneuver honed to perfection over many nights, the raiders sped across the water in a high-powered boat, sneaked aboard the American President Lines vessel and burst into the chief engineer's cabin, armed with knives and machetes.
The terrified crewman was bound with ropes and gagged while the five intruders grabbed cash and valuables, finally fleeing with their loot into the darkness.
Pirates they were, but hardly the movie version of swashbucklers heralding their approach flying a flag of skull and crossbones. Today's raiders are far more sophisticated knaves who find modern supertankers and merchant vessels easy prey in the sea lanes approaching Singapore, one of the world's busiest ports.
"The situation has become critical," said Daniel Herbert, the Southeast Asia general manager of American President Lines. "It cannot be shrugged off any longer. All shippers are acutely aware of it."
Faced with an alarming increase in armed attacks, the Singapore Marine Police and Navy have increased their patrols and set up a VHF radio channel to report raids. But they have been unable to apprehend a single pirate linked with the 51 attacks reported last year or the 61 during the first half of 1987. There were only 24 in 1983.
The Singapore National Shippers Assn., besieged by complaints, is calling for joint action by the six, non-Communist nations of Southeast Asia to curb the menace.
The International Maritime Bureau has singled out Singapore, the ports of Lagos and Port Harcourt in Nigeria, Monrovia in Liberia and Freetown in Sierra Leone plus Brazil and the Caribbean as danger areas.
Officials are repeatedly frustrated by the speed and polish of the pirates, compounded by their own inability to chase the invaders beyond the island republic's territorial waters. The Indonesian Navy also carries out routine patrols.
"We are worried about Singapore's reputation" as the focal point for 500 shipping lines linking the region to all other world ports, said Daniel Tan, spokesman for the shippers' association. "That's why we're taking this to the Federation of ASEAN Shipowners' Assn., which includes Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
"Since Singapore is raising the issue, I hope we're not the only ones concerned" out of the regional grouping, Tan said.
The Singapore shippers' association is particularly disturbed over reports that some crew members are afraid to work aboard ships heading here. A Russian seaman fighting off four pirates was stabbed in March.
The pirates' tactics are simple and effective. As the huge ships slow at night to pass through the Straits of Singapore, speedboats powered by twin outboard motors emerge from the maze of Indonesian islands in the Rhio Archipelago.
Loaded vessels are prime targets, because the freeboard, or the distance between the waterline and deck, is then at its smallest. Approaching from the radar "blind spot" in the rear of most ships, the pirate crafts can easily slip up to their prey undetected. By using grappling hooks and slings, the band is aboard within seconds.
Because the vessels are fully computerized, with limited crews, the pirates often reach the deck and the accommodations without being discovered. The captain's cabin is the most lucrative destination. Once inside, the rogues hold the captain at knifepoint and force him to open the ship's safe. One container ship lost more than $30,000.
The pirates, usually armed with three-foot-long Malay swords and machetes, are primarily interested in removable bounty, such as watches, cameras, radios and clothing. Some carry guns, but ship owners are reluctant to place large quantities of firearms aboard their vessels, fearing the pirates will resort to more firepower, escalating the confrontations.
Other pirates have been raiding human cargo in the Gulf of Thailand. Since 1980, they have murdered almost 1,500 people, raped more than 2,300 women and abducted about 600 of them--mostly Vietnamese boat people with few belongings. Most accounts indicate that the marauders are actually Thai fishermen.
The Singapore Straits, one of the world's busiest waterways, with 6,000 vessels heading eastbound and westbound each month, connects the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. With its waters falling into the domains of both Singapore and Indonesia, officials here say that most of the incidents occur in Indonesia's jurisdiction or in international waters.
The pirates are believed to be Indonesian but officials are reluctant to pinpoint their nationality because apprehension is so rare.
With its rich cargo of prizes flowing from the Indian to the Pacific ocean, the area has been a favorite hunting ground for pirates since the 1800s. The arrival of British sea power with superior modern arms crushed piracy, but it reappeared in the 1980s.