KUALA LUMPUR - Pirates who hijacked a Malaysia-flagged tanker in the South China Sea for a week escaped from the vessel in a lifeboat, only to be captured in Vietnamese waters hours later, the media reported yesterday.
"They were found near Tho Chu Island at about 6.30am. They were on a life raft and claimed they were from a fishing boat that sank," Royal Malaysian Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said yesterday, confirming Vietnam's report of the arrest. "We are checking their story and the investigation is still going on."
He also said the 22 crew members of the MT Orkim Harmony were unscathed except for an Indonesian who was being treated for a gunshot wound to the thigh.
The vessel was the latest to be targeted by increasingly bold pirates behind an upsurge of sea hijackings in South-east Asia in the past two years. They have typically targeted smaller tankers carrying valuable petrol, diesel or gas oil.
The ship, with a cargo of about 6,000 tonnes of petrol worth an estimated RM21 million (S$7.5 million), went missing on June 11 en route from Malaysia's western coast to the port of Kuantan on the east coast.
The pirates were later found to have clumsily altered the ship's name to "Kim Harmon" by painting over the letters.
That failed to fool an air-and- sea search effort, which located the tanker near Vietnamese and Cambodian waters late on Wednesday. Malaysian warships subsequently shadowed the ship, urging the pirates to surrender.
Malaysia has not given details on the hijackers' suspected nationality. Admiral Abdul Aziz had said earlier that they spoke with "Indonesian accents". He said the pirates managed to slip away by ordering naval vessels to stay at least five nautical miles from the ship, otherwise the crew would be harmed.
The pirates had also warned the tanker's captain not to inform the authorities of the escape, causing a five-hour delay in the official response, he said.
The navy chief said the MT Orkim Harmony's cargo was intact and the tanker was being escorted to Kuantan by the navy. Its crew includes 16 Malaysians, five Indonesians and a Myanmar national.
The London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has repeatedly warned that South-east Asian waters were now the world's most piracy-prone.
Attacks on smaller coastal tankers like the MT Orkim Harmony are occurring roughly once every two weeks, the IMB said recently.
South-east Asian waters saw 38 pirate attacks from January to March, or 70 per cent of the global total of 54, it said in April.
A scourge for centuries, piracy in South-east Asia had been reduced significantly over the past decade because of stepped-up regional cooperation and maritime patrols, but it has re-emerged recently.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK