SINGAPORE (REUTERS) - Malaysia and Indonesia are deploying rapid reaction teams to combat a soaring number of 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 Michael Storgaard, spokesman for the world's biggest shipping firm Maersk Line. One of the ships attacked last week was the 106,043 deadweight 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 Bharu, First Admiral Maritime Zulkifili bin Abu Bakar, director of maritime matters in the MMEA's crime investigations department, told Reuters.
The Malaysian and Indonesian navies are forming a similar rapid reaction force in the area, Zulkifili added.
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.
"The STAR team is in addition to the other MMEA personnel tasked to combat anti-piracy/sea robbery. I can't tell you the number of personnel, but (it is) formidable enough to undertake any anti-hijacking operations," the Admiral 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.
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 Mark Thomas, Asia Pacific regional manager at maritime security consultancy Dryad Maritime in Singapore.
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.
Data from the Regional Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) shows the most recent spate of attacks took place in Indonesian waters within 48 hours, suggesting a single group of attackers.
Yet anti-piracy organisations and security firms draw a distinction between the attacks around Singapore, which security experts equated to maritime mugging, and violent piracy off the coast of Somalia, which was only reined in after concerted international efforts.
In most of the attacks in the Malacca and Singapore straits, lightly armed robbers fled, either empty-handed or after stealing ship's stores, while pirates in Africa tended to be heavily armed, attacking larger ships and kidnapping crews.
Shippers said the low level of violence and strict arms regulations in southeast Asia meant it was difficult to employ armed guards.
Instead, tougher onboard measures should be adopted, similar to those used in the Indian Ocean to ward off Somali pirates, including the fitting of barbed wire, locking all doors and better lookouts.