KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's navy has located a tanker that disappeared a week ago in the South China Sea and was urging its hijackers to surrender, its naval chief said yesterday.
The MT Orkim Harmony, which had 6,000 tonnes of petrol in its hold and 22 crew aboard, has been given fresh touches of paint and had its name altered to "Kim Harmon", according to photos released by Malaysia's navy.
A patrol vessel was now shadowing the tanker and communicating with its hijackers in a bid to secure their surrender, Royal Malaysian Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said on his Twitter feed.
"At least eight perpetrators are on board. They are armed with pistols and parangs. They speak with Indonesian accents. All crew are safe and unharmed."
The vessel was in Vietnamese waters, about 370km north-east of the Malaysian city of Kota Baru, officials said.
The Malaysian-registered tanker is the latest victim of increasingly brazen pirates behind an upsurge in hijackings in South-east Asia in the past two years.
The typical targets are usually tankers carrying valuable petrol, diesel or gas oil.
Officials have estimated the value of the tanker's cargo at RM21 million (S$7.5 million). Its crew includes 16 Malaysians, five Indonesians and a Myanmar national.
It was en route from Malacca to the port of Kuantan. Its owners lost contact with the ship last Thursday while it was off Johor. The vessel was spotted on Wednesday by a search-and-rescue operation, officials said.
The London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has repeatedly warned that the waters of South-east Asia were becoming the world's piracy hot spot and called for decisive regional action to thwart attacks. Pirates are preying on slow-moving small coastal tankers, with one attack occurring every two weeks, the IMB said recently.
Pirates usually siphon off cargoes to other vessels before later releasing the tankers and crews.
The MT Orkim Harmony's owners, Malaysia's Orkim Ship Management, has said the tanker's cargo appeared untouched after analysing photos of the hijacked vessel, said Mr Ahmad Puzi, a top Malaysian coast guard official.
Asked whether the authorities might storm the vessel, he told reporters in Putrajaya that "our options are open" but later suggested the navy preferred to take the hijackers alive.
"We want to know their network, we want to know who is their kingpin and who they are," he said.
South-east Asia saw 38 pirate attacks from January to March, or 70 per cent of the global total of 54, the IMB said in an April report, calling the frequency of regional incidents "an increasing cause for concern".