SINGAPORE • Malaysia and Indonesia are deploying rapid reaction teams to combat a soaring number of piracy attacks on merchant vessels in one of the world's busiest shipping chokepoints, a Malaysian admiral said.
Over 70 ships have been attacked in the Malacca and Singapore straits, on the western side of the Malay Peninsula, this year, the highest number since at least 2008, including at least seven at the end of last week, according to security and anti-piracy groups.
"We have, in general, recommended that vessels proceeding to Singapore and passing Malaysian waters take appropriate security measures," said Mr Michael Storgaard, a spokesman for the world's biggest shipping firm, Maersk Line. One of the ships attacked last week was container ship Maersk Lebu.
The surge of attacks has led the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), or coastguard, to deploy a helicopter-equipped special task and rescue (Star) team at Johor Baru, First Admiral Maritime Zulkifili Abu Bakar, director of maritime matters in the MMEA's crime investigations department, told Reuters.
While the MMEA force would respond to robbery and hijacking incidents, team members would sometimes be deployed on merchant ships operated by Malaysian government-linked firms, he said.
Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia already coordinate naval and police patrols in the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, but have been hampered by a lack of resources, while sheltered coasts and islands make it easy for robbers to operate.
"It's not a new team (for Indonesia), but only enhancing patrol cooperation and coordination... especially in (the) Malacca area. We have communicated and the result is significant," said Indonesian Navy spokesman Zainuddin who goes by one name.
Shipping and security experts welcomed the latest move, but urged a more active approach.
"There remains a need for a proactive, permanent security presence in the area during the hours of darkness," said Mr Mark Thomas, Asia-Pacific regional manager at maritime security consultancy Dryad Maritime in Singapore.
Data from the Regional Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia shows that the most recent spate of attacks took place in Indonesian waters within 48 hours, suggesting a single group of attackers.
South-east Asia has become the world's maritime armed robbery and piracy hotspot, registering 84 out of 106 global incidents in the first half of this year, the International Maritime Bureau said.