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Web Alert: Sulu-Celebes Sea - increase in pirate attacks & crew abductions

17 January 2017

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC) conducted a two day meeting of anti-piracy contact points and a workshop on piracy and armed robbery against ships involving participants from Africa, Asia and Europe in Singapore on 11 and 12 January 2017.

Among other matters, the ReCAAP ISC highlighted the concerning trend of kidnappings of crew from ocean going merchant vessels in the Sulu Sea.

While the Sulu Archipelago was removed by Joint War Committee (JWC) as a Listed Area in December 2015, the situation there has since deteriorated. There has been continued occurrence of incidents involving the abduction of crew from ships while underway in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and Eastern Sabah region.

Since March 2016, there have been 10 incidents of kidnap of crew reported in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and Eastern Sabah region, attributed to Philippines militant group, the Abu Sayyaf. Some 48 crew have been abducted in 16 attacks in the Sulu-Celebes Seas since March, of which 15 remain captive, and there are early signs that the perpetrators are becoming more brazen, by making attempts on larger ships in the area.

In an agreement made on 5 May 2016, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed to implement co-ordinated antipiracy controls in the region. However, this has not deterred the ‘kidnap for ransom’ modus operandi of the group. In recent months, they have attacked and successfully hijacked a number of merchant vessels off the Sabah and Eastern Indonesian coasts. This upturn in abductions can likely be attributed to pressure placed on the militant group by local armed forces.

In October 2016, 10 Abu Sayyaf gunmen boarded a 11,391 gt Korean heavylift ship, off Tawi-Tawi Island whilst she was en-route from Korea to Australia. After forcing all crew into the mess room, the terrorists kidnapped the Korean master and a Filipino rating and abandoned ship. Both men remain hostages of the group. This attack marks a departure from Abu Sayyaf’s previous practice of targeting slow moving tug and barge combinations and could be the start of more daring attacks against larger seagoing ships.

In November, four large merchant vessels, were chased by armed pirates in speed boats during separate attempted attacks in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

The incident alert and monthly report issued by ReCAAP in November 2016, made a particular note that, while previously only smaller slow-moving vessels such as tug boats and fishing vessels were targeted, the perpetrators are now also targeting vessels of larger tonnage. It also urges all ships to re-route from the area if possible.

The recent weekly report (for the period of 3 – 9 Jan 2017), highlights three attempted incidents of armed robbery against ships. One of the incidents occurred on 23 November 2016, and was further verified by ReCAAP Focal Points. This report urges ship master and crew to report all incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships to the nearest coastal State and flag State, exercise vigilance and adopt relevant preventive measures taking reference from the Regional Guide to Counter Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia, particularly when operating in areas of concern.

Members with ships operating in that region are recommended to avoid the Sulu-Celebes Sea area by routing their vessels West of Kalimantan. If re-routing is not an option then the vessel would need to be hardened in accordance with BMP4 guidance and adopt the following measures:

  • Conduct risk assessment and implement appropriate mitigating measures
  • Consider vessel’s navigating through that area during the day-light hours, with full sea speed and accommodation lock-down, avoiding crew exposure on decks
  • Crew to be well versed on anti-piracy drills and familiar with evasive navigating measures (zig zag movement to create wakes) when being approached
  • Rig razor wires and high pressure water hoses on deck (for immediate deployment, in case of an attack)· Secure/lift all external ladders to prevent external access
  • Prepare a designated strong room (citadel) on the vessel for crew to take cover. Ensure effective communication equipment from citadel and bridge
  • Post additional lookouts and maintain a continuous watch to the advisories issued on NAVTEX
  • Refer to ReCAAP ISC’s website for updates on incidents and trends
  • Maintain continuous communication with the shipping company and enforcement agencies
  • Report immediately all incidents in accordance with the IMO circular MSC.1/Circ.1334 to the following regional centres:
  • Operation Centre in the Philippine Coast Guard District South-western Mindanao for monitoring and immediate responses in in all instance. (Sat phones: +63 929686 4129/+63 916626 0689, VHF: Channel 16 with call-sign "ENVY", Email: hcgdswm@yahoo.com)
  • Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) when transiting close to eastern Sabah. (Tel: +60 89863181/016, Fax: +60 89863182, VHF: Channel 16 with call-sign “ESSCOM”, Email: bilikgerakanesscom@jpm.gov.my)