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A welcome voice in a sea of chaos

When pirates attack in the Strait of Malacca, and they often do, besieged ships get quick advice from a Malaysian veteran of the crises.

November 13, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — NOEL CHOONG was working late the night he got the distress call: Just off the Malaysian coast in the darkness, a Japanese tugboat and barge were being attacked by a dozen pirates armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers.

The 154-man crew aboard the barge Kuroshio was frantic. As the vessel churned slowly northward through choppy waters of the Strait of Malacca, headed for Myanmar, it had suddenly been surrounded by three fishing boats.

The armed men stormed the little tug. Shots were fired. The captain and two others were taken hostage. The desperate barge crew plotted a rescue mission to free their shipmates, who were being held with guns to their heads.

A slender, tough-to-ruffle figure in his mid-40s, Choong urged the crew not to try anything stupid. "The pirates had high-powered weapons," he said later. "We told them: 'You're unarmed. You can't fight guns.' "

As his staff radioed for help from Malaysian marine police, Choong stayed on the phone with the terrified seamen. Pirates may be oceangoing desperadoes driven by poverty or greed, he assured them, but they usually are not killers.

Unless, that is, they were cornered or provoked.

"For that crew, this was a night from hell," Choong recalled. "I was just trying to be their friendly voice of reason."

Choong is a pirate catcher, a maritime crisis negotiator who handles the high-anxiety drama of modern-day pirate attacks in real time. He's also a detective, a high-seas sleuth with a host of shadowy shipping industry informants he uses to run down hijacked ships.

In the outlaw Strait of Malacca, whose waters are considered the most pirated in the world, his services as director of the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center are in near-constant demand.

The 550-mile-long channel, flanked by Singapore and Malaysia to the east and the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the west, is one of the world's most strategic international waterways and its busiest shipping lane. Each year, 60,000 vessels, the equivalent of nearly half the world's entire merchant fleet, negotiate the funnel-shaped shortcut between the Pacific and Indian oceans. They range from mammoth supertankers as large as city skyscrapers to tugs and barges.

Such seaborne commercial traffic attracts a sophisticated brand of piracy that has moved far beyond the scabbards and cutlasses of the 17th century.

Many are opportunists, Choong said, impromptu gangs of poor fisherman who can't resist the allure of lumbering, unarmed vessels laden with cash and goods: "They realized that robbing unarmed sailors is a lot easier than robbing a bank." Others are more ambitious and well-organized, professionals who plunder ships for crime syndicates, warlords, corrupt government officials and even regional terrorist groups.

IN recent years, Choong says, emboldened pirates have become more sophisticated. They forge passports and other documents to turn working maritime vessels into slave- and drug-running ships. They use satellite phones and global positioning systems.

With high-speed fiberglass boats, they creep up from behind, using the cover of the ship radar's blind spot. With grappling hooks and expert climbing skills, they scale the vessel's mooring ropes and overpower isolated and vulnerable crews.

The pirates don't just use the cover of darkness. They also take advantage of national sovereignty laws.

Knowing that marine police must observe territorial boundaries, flotillas of fishermen from such places as Sumatra or freelance commandos from the Indonesian navy ambush ships and then race back to the safety of their sovereign waters, often just a few miles away.

In a trick from centuries ago, pirates may disguise themselves to approach wary vessels. Some pose as marine police, uniforms and all, doing routine checks.

Shippers have retaliated: In the Strait of Malacca, vessels use powerful water hoses to blast would-be boarders off the deck or to swamp the boats below. Some post mannequins dressed in overalls and hard hats to give the impression of a larger crew. Captains of smaller boats spread carpet tacks on their decks at night, hoping to slow pirates, who often attack barefoot to give themselves a better grip and to minimize sound.

Bigger boats illuminate decks with floodlights and travel in a zigzag to create a wake to sink small boats. Day and night, the more watchful captains use closed-circuit TV to monitor the water around them. Some hire armed commandos for security, because in the anarchy and take-care-of-your-own credo of the high seas, isolated ships in jeopardy know they cannot expect help from another unarmed craft.

Many pirate attacks are hit-and-run robberies. In others, crew members are kidnapped for ransom, even tortured and killed. Countless vessels have been hijacked, their nameplates and paperwork swiftly changed, and turned into ghost ships used by syndicates for drug and slave smuggling.

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