The perennial saga of piracy in Southeast Asian waters has taken on a new and alarming twist. A spate of well-planned attacks on oil tankers and cargo vessels in a narrow waterway in the Strait of Malacca, known as the Phillips Channel, has abruptly shone the spotlight on the vulnerability of international shipping to hijack and robbery.
The narrowness of the Phillips Channel -- a mere 1,400 yards across at its narrowest point -- forces the 15,000 ships that pass through it every year to creep slowly along its five-mile length.
In the past few months, small groups of men, clad only in swimming trunks and armed with knives and long daggers (known locally as parangs), have drawn alongside ships in small, fast boats, flung grappling hooks over the side of the giant ships, and hauled themselves aboard.
In what are clearly well-planned and well-organized attacks, the pirates make for the captain's cabin and at knifepoint force him to hand over cash and valuables. In many cases this means the crew's wages are taken. The attackers then lower themselves over the side and vanish as quickly as they appeared. So far no one has been caught.
The identity of the culprits is a sensitive issue here and the local press has not even hinted at their nationality. But most informed sources believe the pirates are Indonesian nationals, and the skill with which they operate could mean they have at some time received military training.
Although the value of the robberies has been relatively small -- for example, just $30,000 from the Scantutch Consortium's Contender Argent in July, and $4, 000 from a Mobil tanker in August -- there is alarm in shipping circles at the apparent ease with which the pirates are able to mount their attacks and make their getaways.
In at least one case an oil tanker was left virtually unmanned, with the captain and crew held powerless as the pirates ransacked their ship.