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FOCUS: Malaysian village copes with pirates in silence.

HUTAN MELINTANG, Malaysia, March 19 Kyodo

People living in this tiny coastal village in Malaysia's Perak state are no strangers to piracy.

In the last three years alone, fishermen here have had some 30 encounters with pirates, most going unreported, Kee Kuee Poo, chairman of the local fishermen's cooperative, told Kyodo News.

Hutan Melintang is located some 300 kilometers northwest of Kuala Lumpur, facing the Malacca Strait.

To the locals, the pirate attacks represent just one of the dangers fishermen face that the authorities and media have ignored until now.

Hordes of Japanese reporters descended on the sleepy hollow Friday following the discovery the day before that a local fishing boat had been used by pirates in Monday's attack on the Japanese tugboat Idaten in the Malacca Strait.

The pirates made off with the boat's Japanese captain Nobuo Inoue, chief engineer Shunji Kuroda, and third engineer Edgardo Sadang, who is from the Philippines.

Echoing the view of authorities, Kee blamed the latest attack on rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) seeking funds for their battle for an independent Aceh state in Indonesia's Sumatra Island.

Unlike other pirates who seize ships and equipment, the rebels usually kidnap hostages for ransom, as is apparently the case with the attack on the Idaten. However, officials said the pirates have not made any contact demanding ransom and the fate of the hostages is unknown.

GAM officials, however, have denied involvement in this particular case.

Whether it is GAM or not, for fishermen of Hutan Melintang, the Idaten is just another victim to add to the statistics.

''We are used to the pirates already,'' said one villager.

Kee said the pirates of today have become more sophisticated in their operation.

The pirates that attacked the Idaten were armed with M-16 machine guns and rocket launchers.

''Until five years ago, they used knives and would only steal cash or diesel fuel. Now they want a big ransom. The trend is to take hostages,'' he said.

''They would hijack the boat, escape to an isolated place, then ask for the bosses' contact number and they would demand that money be deposited to a bank account in Jakarta,'' Kee said.

The typical ransom for a boat and crew is 100,000 ringgit (about

$26,300).

To avoid detection, the pirates, riding on a small motor boat, usually hijack a bigger fishing boat and use it to launch their attack, Kee said.

Two years ago, one of his friends was captured and brought to a three-story mansion where he came face to face with the head of the pirate gang, who politely told him that once the money was received, he would be released.

Some of the pirates even carry business cards with them that say ''Negara Aceh'' (Aceh state), he claimed.

''There is no question of being killed by the pirates because everyone just pays up,'' Kee said.

The sudden surge of attention by both the media and the police on Hutan Melintang caused a stir and heightened their fear to go to sea.

There has been a 50 percent fall in catches since the Idaten incident, Kee said.

Police detained the five crew members of the fishing boat suspected to have been used by the pirates to attack the Idaten.

Kee's cooperative has 1,300 members who collectively own 450 boats, most of which are used for deep-sea fishing. Their haul accounts for nearly 28 percent of the country's fish exports, Kee said.

While the strait is rich with marine life, it is also a vital sea lane with over 50,000 commercial vessels plying the route each year carrying more than a quarter of the world's trade and almost all oil imports to Japan and China.

It is also the favorite target for pirates, second only to Indonesian waters. Last year, the International Maritime Bureau's Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Center recorded 37 attacks in the strait.

Kee said he fully supports the proposal by the United States and Japan to send their coast guards to help patrol the sea lane. The Malaysian and Indonesian governments, however, have staunchly vetoed the idea, saying it would lead to encroachment of territorial sovereignty.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Mar 21, 2005
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