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Pirates ahead!

Off the lawless coasts of Indonesia, shadowy bands of looters still ply their trade. Only the booty has changed.

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When the pirates came, the Pilion's crew was ready. The skipper had already spotted two or three suspicious boats edging closer during the approach into Singapore. Finally, a boat emerged from the darkness and a man climbed onto the deck of the Pilion, a cargo ship on its way from South Africa to Japan.

The 19-man crew was braced for trouble. After all, they were cruising the world's most pirate-infested waterways, where almost one-third of all reported pirate attacks take place. And they were in the treacherous waters of Indonesia, whose underpaid coast guards are suspected of sharing the spoils with modern-day Bluebeards.

But this time the pirates didn't get far. When several crew members stepped onto the deck to challenge the intruder, he turned and panicked, then fell into the water. The boats quietly slipped away into the inky tropical night. Within hours, the Pilion was docking safely in Singapore.

"This one was laughable," says Michael Papaioannou, owner of London-based Helikon Shipping, agent for the Pilion, who spoke to the ship's captain after the Feb. 4 incident. "But [pirates] can be extremely dangerous. It frightens the living daylights out of our crews."

Pirates have long had an unsavory reputation, as any seasoned reader of "Treasure Island" and other sea yarns would agree. But today's swashbucklers - motivated by greed, war, or revolutionary fervor - are plundering Asia's coastlines with increasing violence and frequency.

The sharp rise in recent piracy attacks in Southeast Asia is unnerving governments as well as shippers, not least because of the strategic importance of its waterways and its vulnerability to terrorism.

Around 30 percent of the world's traded goods pass through the Strait of Malacca bordered by Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

This channel, only 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest point, is a vital link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It's also home to rebel armies, criminal gangs, smugglers, and Islamic militants who thrive in the lawless waters of Indonesia, which leads the world in piracy attacks.

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