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Hard times for pirates in busy world waterway

Attacks fall sharply in Asia's Malacca Strait, host to 50,000 ships yearly.

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Regional cooperation on policing the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, has led to a sharp fall this year in piracy attacks, cutting the cost of insuring cargo plying its hazardous waters. Crews are now considered less likely to become victims of "maritime muggings" by seaborne assailants.

That's a relief to countries such as Japan and China that depend on Middle East oil imports that transit the 500-mile passageway that snakes between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. The US also has a stake in securing a commercial choke point that is used by US warships moving between the Pacific and Indian oceans. More than 50,000 ships annually transit the waterway, where half the world's oil passes through.

Still, doubts remain about the continued effectiveness of coordinated naval and aerial patrols to deter criminals that use Indonesia's rugged coastline as cover for attacks on vulnerable vessels. Maritime officials warn that the drop in attacks may be temporary, if patrols aren't maintained, and say that records are incomplete as shipowners don't always report piracy incidents to local authorities.

"The number of attacks has gone down, that's for sure ... [but] the pirates haven't been caught, they're just lying low," says Noel Choong, head of the piracy watch center of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in Kuala Lumpur. He says that shipowners are reluctant to report minor piracy incidents as it delays their passage and can add to insurance costs.

According to the IMB's piracy center, just three incidents were reported in the Malacca Strait in the first half of this year, the lowest level since 1999. Far more pirate-prone, based on current data, are the coastlines of Nigeria and Somalia, where attacks are on the increase.

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