Regional maritime authorities searching for missing Vietnam oil tanker amid hijack fears

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Maritime authorities across South-east Asia are scouring the seas for a Vietnamese oil tanker, which has not been heard from for six days and is now feared to have been taken by pirates.

The Sunrise 689, which had a crew of 18 people and was carrying over 5,000 tonnes of gas oil, vanished from radar 40 minutes after leaving Singapore on Oct 2, when it was bound for Quang Tri province in central Vietnam.

Mr Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, said they suspect it was hijacked. "It looks like their communication system is off or destroyed," Mr Choong told Reuters on Wednesday, saying an attempt to trace the tanker using satellites had failed.

The ship is owned by Vietnam's Haiphong Sea Product Shipbuilding Co, which said its last known location was 115 nautical miles north-east of Singapore. "We learnt that parties involved have started the search for the ship. So far Vietnam has yet to send any ship to the last-known location," said company official Nguyen Vu Diep.

There has been a series of piracy attacks in South-east Asian waters this year, with at least 11 vessels hijacked in the Strait of Malacca or South China Sea since April, according to the IMB.

On Aug 28, the Thailand-flagged tanker V.L. 14 was attacked by six armed pirates 30 nautical miles north of Tioman Island in Malaysia. The pirates drained the vessel's cargo of l,296 tonnes of lube oil before escaping.

Vietnam's National Search and Rescue Committee said that it and the foreign ministry had sent diplomatic notes on Tuesday to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei and Cambodia asking for help in the search.

It said that its maritime search and rescue coordination centre, coastguards and navy were searching for the vessel along with agencies from other countries in the region.

"Maritime authorities are out searching for her (the vessel) using surface ships and maritime patrol aircraft," said a spokesman for the Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) in Singapore.