Maritime agency puts the squeeze on global piracy

Other News Materials 20 November 2008 09:54 (UTC +04:00)

The unassuming and modest setup of the two-room office suite belies the nature and importance of its operations -to be a main player in the global fight against piracy, dpa reported.

Apart from several computers as well as colour-coded maps and newspaper clippings lining the walls, nothing else reveals the kind of work being carried out at the reporting centre of the International Maritime Bureau, or IMB.

The London-based IMB set up the Kuala Lumpur office in 1992 to act as a contact point for ships in distress, as well as to transmit requests for assistance to troubled vessels.

"We may appear to be a small set-up, but underneath all you see, we're really a major player in a fight against piracy," said Noel Choong, head of the centre.

The centre is operational 24 hours a day, and its eight-man staff work on shifts round the clock, he said.

"When a ship is under attack, they will contact our centre and we will then immediately broadcast a call for help to all naval ships in the area," said Choong.

He said the IMB's objective was to work alongside individual countries and international organisations to safeguard sea travel.

The centre also offers aide and advice to ship-owners of hijacked vessels, as well as providing crucial information to naval authorities on the activities of the pirates.

"It's crucial that we provide immediate help to ships under attack, and so our phone lines are always open," said Choong.

"I've received calls at all hours of the night, while I'm in the shower, on leave ... there's never a dull moment with this job," said Choong.

The reporting centre also broadcasts reports of dangerous sightings and potential threats to seafarers on a regular basis.

With the recent rise in pirate activities, especially in the troubled waters off Somalia, the centre has been placed on full alert.

In its third-quarter report released last month, the IMB noted that there were 199 piracy attacks in the first nine months of 2008, out of which 115 vessels were boarded, 31 hijacked and 16 crew members killed.

The Gulf of Aden and the east coast of Somalia rank as the number one piracy hotspot, followed by Nigeria.

Despite the rise in piracy, Choong said he believed the centre is fighting a winning battle, and has the full backing of the United Nations and other international agencies.

"There are certain difficulties we face, such as a lack of naval presence in certain hotspots, but it can be very rewarding to see how pirate activities have dwindled in once-dangerous areas," he said.

One such area is the Malacca Strait.

The narrow waterway used to be a hotspot for pirates, mostly from Indonesia's troubled Aceh province, but security-related incidents in the straits have become rare. Some 75 cases were reported in 2000, compared to only four in 2007. No piracy attacks have been reported in the first half of this year.

Choong attributed this "success story" to increased cooperation between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore - the three countries bordering the strait.

"Of course, credit must be given to the countries for their commitment, but we believe the centre has played an important role in bringing about this change," he said.

Choong, who has led the centre for more than 10 years, said the sense of fulfillment in helping a hijacked ship and its crew obtain freedom, and the satisfaction of seeing dipping numbers of attacks far outweigh the hazards that come with the job.

Considering the nature of the criminals the centre aims to cripple, the Kuala Lumpur office is surprisingly lacking in security and Choong intends to keep it that way.

"Threats to our safety is an occupational hazard," he said. "We don't want to make a big thing out of it."

"Of course, if you want to think of the what-if's, we have to remember we are going up against warlords who are not happy with the role we are playing," he said. "But let's not give them any ideas by talking about it."