Piracy attacks on oil tankers surged to unprecedented levels during the first quarter of 2001, reinforcing fears that the onslaught will sooner or later result in ecological catastrophe. "There has been an increase in the number of tankers attacked," Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director of piracy investigator the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said. "Before it was mostly bulk-carriers."
Nearly half of the 56 cargo ships attacked in the first quarter of the year were tankers, compared to 28 percent in last year's first quarter, according to the IMB's latest report.
Last week, Abhyankar warned a tanker owners' conference that pirate attacks on tankers in Asia's crowded shipping lanes were a growing threat to navigation. "While pirates are boarding the ship for the duration of 30 to 60 minutes, the ships are often not under command," he said. "Do we wait for another Exxon Valdez before we tackle piracy in the proper sense?"
The Exxon Valdez spilled 35,000 tons of crude on Alaskan shorelines after it hit rocks in March 1989.
The problem was most recently illustrated on March 19 by an attack on the 3,000-ton oil tanker Matsumi Maru as it steamed through the Malacca Straits.
"The pirates took the duty second officer, and other crew members hostage," reads an account of the attack. "They then tried to take another officer hostage, but he resisted and managed to grab a knife and torch from
one of the pirates."
"The pirates broke open the master's cabin door and assaulted him. They tied his hands and legs and taped his mouth and eyes."
Tankers were the target of 30 percent of pirate attacks across the whole of last year, and the IMB said it feared that an equal number of attacks go unreported. Petroleum product tankers have proven to be a key target with their valuable cargoes of diesel and gasoline, which can easily be sold on the black market.
Just as in 2000, over 40 percent of all attacks occurred in the waters of Indonesia or the Malacca Straits. Abhyankar said that it would be there or in the Singapore Strait that a spill was most likely to happen.
"The threat of an ecological catastrophe cannot be ignored. We firmly believe it is not a question of if (a pirate attack results
in an oil spill), but when," he said. - (Reuters)