Surface Forces: March 16, 2000


: AVAST, YE MATEY'S, HEAVE TO AND PREPARE TO BE BOARDED: Piracy, that is to say robbery on the high seas, continues even today. In most cases today, armed gunmen in speedboats catch up to and board a freighter or tanker under way and rob the crew of their valuables. This type of piracy is known as "Asian Piracy" since most attacks of this kind occur around Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and the Philippines. There have been similar attacks near Somalia, where the local warlord gangs take to sea in motorboats to rob freighters kept close to the coast by the offshore currents. The pirates often loot the ship itself for anything valuable which they can carry in their small boats. It is not uncommon for crewmen who resist the thieves to be shot. Even supertankers have been robbed by pirates who simply took the crew's money and went back the way they came. Pirates have also been known to rob local fishermen of their nets and catch, apparently when they lacked the industriousness to seek larger prey. 

Rarely, the pirates steal the entire ship, repainting the name and operating it from ports where corrupt officials will not look too closely. While piracy is a crime under international maritime law and under the laws of almost all nations, pirates are rarely caught and even less often punished. In at least two cases in Asia, pirates took shelter in Chinese ports and bribed Chinese officials to release them rather than hand them over for trial. During 1993, there were a dozen or more reported pirate attacks near China by men wearing Chinese military uniforms and operating from what appeared to be Chinese gunboats. This appears to have been a case of freelancing by a corrupt military unit. The International Maritime Bureau logs about 100-150 cases of piracy per year. Most piracy is not even reported. It costs thousands of dollars per day to operate a freighter of any size, and keeping it tied up in port while police investigate a crime they will probably never solve simply does not make economic sense. Instead, the owners quietly compensate the victimized crew and the ship goes along its way. For the same reason, shipping companies would rather compensate the crew for their loss (and pay higher wages) than hire armed guards to protect the ships. Providing such guards would be difficult as a proper defense force would need to keep three or four pairs of lookouts posted around the clock, which would mean paying 15-20 military salaries and doubling the cost of the crew. Even in the most pirate-prone waters, the vast majority of ships are not attacked. 

In West Africa and South America, pirates are more likely to be armed street gangs who board ships while they are in the harbor and rob the crew before melting back into the local underworld. This type of attack is likely to net a bigger haul (including part of the cargo) simply because it is easier to unload it and carry it away.

The 1985 attack on the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists could be considered "political piracy" but such attacks are extremely rare. --Stephen V Cole




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