Indonesia fears piracy surge in Philippine waters could turn region into 'new Somalia'

The four Malaysians who were allegedly kidnapped by suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf on April 1, 2016.
The four Malaysians who were allegedly kidnapped by suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf on April 1, 2016.PHOTO: THE STAR

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia fears piracy on a busy shipping route along its maritime border with the Philippines could hit levels seen in Somalia unless security is tightened, the chief security minister said on Thursday (April 21), following a spate of kidnappings.

The waters form part of major shipping arteries that carry US$40 billion (S$53.87 billion) worth of cargo a year, analysts say, and the corridor is used by fully laden supertankers from the Indian Ocean that cannot use the crowded Malacca Strait waterway.

A total of 18 Indonesians and Malaysians have been taken captive in three separate attacks on tugboats in Philippine waters along the route, by groups suspected of ties to the Al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf militant network in the Philippines.

Abu Sayyaf, a group known for kidnappings, beheadings, bombings and extortion, has demanded 50 million pesos (S$1.451 million) to free the Indonesian crew.

"We don't want to see this become a new Somalia," Indonesian chief security minister Luhut Pandjaitan told reporters, referring to the southern Philippine waters of the Sulu Sea, where the abductions took place.

Piracy near Somalia's coast has largely subsided in the past few years, mainly due to shipping firms hiring private security details and the presence of international warships.

The foreign ministers of Malaysia and the Philippines will meet their Indonesian counterpart in Jakarta to discuss the possibility of "joint patrols in order to secure the passage from Indonesia to the Philippines," Pandjaitan said.

He did not give a date for the meeting, although he added that armed forces chiefs of the three countries would also meet in Jakarta on May 3.

Indonesian security and transport officials met on Thursday to discuss stepping up security in the area.

The Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre this week warned all vessels sailing in the Celebes Sea and north-east of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo to stay clear of small suspicious vessels.

For the first time, the rising tide of maritime attacks by suspected Islamist militants is disrupting coal trade between the southeast Asian neighbours.

Indonesia, the world's largest thermal coal exporter, supplies 70 per cent of the Philippines' coal import needs.

But as security concerns rise, authorities at several Indonesian coal ports have blocked further departures of ships for the Philippines, threatening the shipment schedules of some of the country's top producers.

"The Indonesians' move to ban coal shipments are their own domestic actions, thus it's their prerogative," said a spokeswoman for the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

The government-to-government group based in Singapore, which cooperates on anti-piracy issues, is in touch with Malaysia and the Philippines on the hijackings, she added.

In a bid to stop a kidnap "industry" from emerging, the Philippines military has urged the shipping companies involved not to pay ransoms for captives held by Islamist militants.

The last outbreak of Somali piracy, at the end of the previous decade, cost the world's shipping industry billions of dollars as pirates paralysed shipping lanes, kidnapped hundreds of seafarers and seized vessels more than 1,000 miles from Somalia's coastline.