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The vulnerability of shipping to terrorist attacks is highlighted in a report on piracy and other criminal attacks at sea issued by the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB). 

The IMB annual piracy report for 2002 says that attacks like the one in the Gulf of Aden last October, when the French tanker Limburg was rammed by a boat packed with explosives, were difficult to prevent. “No shipboard response can protect the ship in these circumstances.”

The only answer was for coastal states to make sure that approaches to their ports were secure. IMB recommended that port authorities designate approach channels under coast guard or police supervision from which all unauthorised craft would be banned.

“The risk of terrorist attack can perhaps never be eliminated, but sensible steps can be taken to reduce the risk,” the IMB says. “The issue here is how seriously do the governments take the threat of maritime terrorism. Post-Limburg, we cannot continue to hope for the best and ignore the lessons.”

Commenting on last year’s tally of 370 attacks on shipping at sea worldwide up from 335 in 2001 IMB notes that most occurred while ships were at anchor. A marked increase in successful boarding by pirates combined with a drop in the number of attempted attacks suggested that many ships were complacent about the need for additional precautionary measures. “Vigilant anti-piracy watch is still the best deterrent,” the report says.

There was a substantial rise in hijackings, up from 16 to 25 incidents. Many involved smaller boats, such as tugs, barges and fishing boats, in the Malacca Straits and Indonesian waters. Crime syndicates in the area were believed to be targeting vessels carrying valuable palm oil and gas oil.

IMB director Pottengal Mukundan comments: “In some parts of the world it is all too easy to board a merchant vessel unlawfully. Against the current concern in respect of maritime terrorism, it is vital that coastal states allocate resources to patrolling their waters more effectively. Failing this, we do not foresee a reduction in these incidents.”

Although the number of crew killed in 2002 was down to 10 compared with 21 in 2001, that figure concealed a chilling statistic 24 passengers or crew were missing, and most of these must be considered dead. The report’s summary of attacks on ships frequently notes that pirates threw crew members into the sea, leaving them to drown.

Indonesia again experienced the highest number of attacks, with 103 reported incidents in 2002. Piracy attacks in Bangladesh ranked second highest with 32 attacks and India was third with 18 attacks.

In South America, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Guyana all showed a marked increase in attacks.

The waters off Somalia are among the most dangerous in the world. “The risk of attack to vessels staying close to the coastline from Somali armed militias has now increased from one of possibility to certainty,” the IMB says.

“Any vessel, not making a scheduled call in a Somali port, which slows down, or stops close to the Somali coast will be boarded by these gangs.”

They had extorted substantial sums from owners for the return of the vessel and crew.

The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, which runs a satellite warning system for ships at sea, was a major contributor to the report. The centre provides assistance free of charge to ships that have been attacked. A weekly summary of the centre’s daily satellite reports is posted on the Internet at This front line unit of IMB in its fight against piracy is funded by donations from the shipping industry.

The IMB’s Annual Report on piracy seeks not only to list the facts, but also to analyse developments in piracy and to identify piracy-prone areas so that crews can take preventive action.