SINGAPORE - The year is not yet over but the number of cargo thefts from barges towed by tug boats in the Singapore Strait has already hit a five-year high.
Scrap metal was often the loot taken, said a special report on Thursday (Aug 22) by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre.
In all, there were 14 theft and robbery incidents between February and mid-August, compared with just 13 in the four years between 2015 and 2018.
The ReCAAP information sharing centre said a record nine cases involved theft of scrap metals from barges, with robbery making up the rest.
It said the theft of scrap metal is of particular concern as the increase is significant when compared to only 16 incidents in the eight years between 2011 and 2018.
The Singapore Strait is a waterway south of Singapore which links the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea.
The centre said it was concerned about the rise "although all the 14 incidents were Cat 4 (petty theft) in nature as the perpetrators were not armed and the crew not harmed''.
They all took place in the western sector of the Singapore Strait.
Eleven of the 14 boats attacked were Malaysia-registered vessels, one was Cyprus-registered, another was Niue-registered and the country of the last one is unknown.
Five were sailing to Penang and three were heading for Port Klang in Malaysia. Information on the rest was not available.
The centre said that in most of the scrap metal thefts, the culprits would sail their smaller boats until they are alongside the barge and transfer the scrap metal onto their vessels.
The tow boat and barge would be moving slowly owing to the heavy cargo.
In many cases, the crew of the tow boat would be unaware of the theft taking place as the barges are usually unmanned.
Three people suspected of being part of the criminal groups involved in these thefts were arrested by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency earlier in August, the centre added.
To put a lid on the rising crime, the ReCAAP said crew of tug boats and barges entering the Singapore Strait should refer to its website to find out where and when the previous incidents took place.
They also need to be more vigilant and look out for suspicious small boats and report suspicious activities to the authorities.
ReCAAP added: "More needs to be done to strengthen regional cooperation and coordination among the littoral states in conducting joint coordinated patrols, surveillance, enforcement, apprehension and prosecution of the perpetrators involved."