KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Three crewmen were kidnapped after pirates attacked a Japanese tugboat in the Malacca Strait, three days after a gas tanker came under a similar attack in the area, a piracy watchdog said.
“The tugboat’s crew have put out a distress call. The attack is going on now,” Noel Choong, regional manager of the Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), told AFP at 7:20 pm (1120 GMT).
“The pirates are on board the boat. We are communicating the details of the attack to the Malaysian marine police so that they can dispatch a patrol craft to rescue the crew,” he said.
An official with the Marine Rescue Coordinating Centre in Port Klang, west of Kuala Lumpur, told AFP that the pirates had kidnapped three people — the captain, chief engineer and a crew member.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he identified the tugboat as the “Idaten” and said it was towing the barge “Kuroshio 1.”
Choong said marine police successfully intercepted the tugboat and barge and were escorting them back to northen Penang state. The attackers fled with their three victims in a separate craft, he said.
“The pirates have kidnapped the captain and chief engineer — both Japanese and a Filipino crew,” he said.
Choong said the remaining 11 crew from the tugboat and 154 seafarers on the barge were safe.
Abdul Rahman Ahmad, marine police commander, told AFP that navy gunboats and marine patrol craft had been deployed to rescue the crew.
The attack took place 39 nautical miles southwest of Penang island, he said.
“We have directed our boats there,” Abdul Rahman said.
Choong reported earlier Monday that a gang of 35 pirates armed with machine guns and rocket launchers seized a fully-laden gas tanker in the strait at the weekend, rekindling fears of a terrorist attack in the vital waterway.
The tanker was released but the captain and chief engineer were kidnapped and the pirates were demanding a ransom, Choong told AFP.
The 1,289-tonne Indonesian-owned MT Tri Samudra was carrying a cargo of methane gas from Samarinda in Kalimantan province on Borneo island to Belawan on Sumatra island when it was boarded in the early evening on Saturday, Choong said.
“The pirates attacked the ship as it was heading towards Belawan and ordered it to sail to Dumai (also in Sumatra). During the journey to Dumai the captain and chief engineer were kidnapped and taken off the ship.”
The ship, sailed by the remaining crew members, arrived in Dumai on Sunday.
“The status of captain and chief engineer are unknown. The hijackers are negotiating with the ship’s owners for their release,” he said.
The ship’s owners believe the pirates were rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been fighting for independence for Aceh province in the north of Sumatra island, Choong said.
“If this is a terrorist attack, it will have severe consequences on the security of the ports in the region. It looks like they (pirates) are becoming very daring and they are moving away from the normal coastal attacks towards the open sea and towards Malaysian waters,” Choong said.
The narrow 960-kilometre (600-mile) Malacca Strait, bordered by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, is used by about 50,000 ships a year carrying a third of world trade and half its oil supplies.
The three nations last year began coordinated patrols in the Strait after Japan and Western countries expressed concern that terrorists could hijack a tanker to use as a floating bomb or to block the vital channel and disrupt world trade.