SINGAPORE - Incidents of armed robbery in the Singapore Strait continued to climb in the first half of this year, with 20 reported between January and June.
This is four more than the number during the same period last year, when such incidents hit a five-year high.
The spike comes amid an overall improvement in Asia waters, with 37 reported incidents this year compared with 57 for the same period last year - marking a 35 per cent decrease.
The alarm was raised by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCaap) Information Sharing Centre, which released its half-year statistics on Friday (July 16).
It noted that the number of incidents in the Singapore Strait so far this year accounts for more than half the total number reported in Asia.
Of the 20 in the Singapore Strait, all occurred in Indonesian waters, with 19 in the east-bound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme.
Most of the incidents were low level, said the centre's executive director Masafumi Kuroki, but an area of concern is a cluster of 16 incidents off Tanjung Pergam in Bintan, Indonesia.
Five ships were attacked in that area just last month.
According to ReCaap, whose 20 member states include Singapore, Japan, Australia and the United States, all the 16 incidents took place on larger ships, such as bulk carriers and tankers, and in the hours of darkness.
There were two incidents where the crew were threatened and two where they were assaulted. Of the two injured crew members, one had a minor contusion on his forehead while the other person's injury is not known.
There were seven incidents where the perpetrators were reportedly armed with knives. This is up from four incidents involving knives in that area for the whole of 2020.
In 12 of the incidents, the perpetrators accessed the engine room of the ship.
In six of them, engine spare parts were stolen.
ReCaap said the majority of the incidents involved groups of three to four men, although there was one instance in January where 10 people armed with knives were seen in the engine room of a bulk carrier en route to China.
Nothing was stolen in that incident and the crew members were unharmed.
Mr Kuroki said ReCaap issued incident alerts four times this year, including recommending increased surveillance patrol and enhanced information sharing between littoral states.
"There may be groups of perpetrators near that location (Bintan) who found it easier to attack the ships (there)," he added, noting that if there are no arrests, they will continue to operate.
He raised the possibility of the existence of multiple groups as there were some incidents that took place in different locations in the area at almost the same time.
Asked how the recent spate of armed robberies in the Singapore Strait can be curbed, Mr Kuroki said law enforcement is key.
Close coordination between Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia is also important as the perpetrators are always on the move, he added.
He cited the example of the Malacca Strait, where there is close cooperation under the Malacca Strait Patrol, with measures undertaken by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
"Since 2006 or 2007, the number of incidents in the Malacca Strait has decreased," he added, noting that, this year, from January to June, there was none.
Mr Kuroki said it is difficult to tell what impact the ongoing pandemic has had on piracy and armed robberies in Asia waters.
He noted that while there was an increase in armed robbery incidents last year, there was a fall this year even as new waves of Covid-19 hit countries in the region.
Yet, this was not the case in the Singapore Strait.
"Is it because of Covid-19 or because of other factors? I think it's very difficult to see the link," Mr Kuroki said.