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Piracy-related incidents rise in Singapore Straits: ReCAAP

Singapore — There has been an increase in sea robbery and piracy related incidents around the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, or SOMS, as well as lingering concerns over abduction of crew in the Sulu Sea-Celebes Sea region, anti-piracy watchdog, ReCAAP said.

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There has been a 60% on the year increase in such incidents on barges towed by tug boats in the Singapore Straits to eight in the first-half of 2019, ReCAAP's executive director Masafumi Kuroki said in its report released late Wednesday.

ReCAAP is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia.

While such incidents have decreased around Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam, there is a spike around the SOMS, Kuroki said. All incidents around Singapore this year took place in the westbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme, he said.

Singapore is located along one of the world's busiest waterways, with close to 1,000 ships anchored there at any given time. A ship calls at Singapore port every two to three minutes, bringing the total to around 130,000 ships a year and making it critical for maritime passage in the region to be piracy-free.

At present, maritime security in Asia is under sharp focus, particularly in the aftermath of the attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, near the Persian Gulf last month, which has pushed shipping insurance rates higher due to an additional war risk premia. The Strait of Hormuz, which leads to the Persian Gulf, is a critical chokepoint through which 30% of the world's seaborne oil passes through.

Interestingly, according to ReCAAP's statistics, which is primarily focused on East Asia, the piracy and sea robberies in the region are at their lowest in more than a decade. Naval experts say that overall piracy is on a decline, while multilateral geopolitical tensions have increased due to the US differences with Iran over the latter's nuclear weapons program.

Notwithstanding the increase in piracy related incidents around SOMS, the overall East Asian region saw a decline of 32% during H1 2019 compared with the same period last year, Kuroki said.

However, he expressed concern over the abduction of nine crew members from two boats last month near Sulu. Though the abducted crew was released within three days, apparently due to their weak economic status, the perpetrators fled away in an unknown direction.

"Risk of abduction of crew is high," Kuroki said, with reference to the Sulu-Celebes Seas.

He said that ReCAAP is maintaining its advisory for ships to avoid the Sulu-Celebes Seas region and re-route from the area, wherever possible.

Ships passing through the region must exercise extra vigilance and maintain communication at all times with the maritime authorities of the Philippines and Malaysia, he said.

Since March 2016, 75 crew members have been abducted in the region, of which 10 either died or were killed, while the rest were released.

From industrial raw materials such as coal to essential food items like rice, commodities worth billions of dollars move on commercial ships near the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea, industry estimates showed.

Established in 2006, ReCAAP is the first regional government-to-government agreement to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia. It has 20 member countries, including all members of ASEAN except Malaysia and Indonesia, with France and Germany expected to join ReCAAP in the future.

--Sameer C. Mohindru, sameer.mohindru@spglobal.com

--Edited by Norazlina Juma'at, norazlina.jumaat@spglobal.com