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International relations

Kidnappings at sea are surging, organization warns

Shipping companies urged to avoid most dangerous areas

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  © Reuters

TOKYO -- A wave of maritime kidnappings for ransom is posing a growing threat to the safety of seafarers off Asian and African coasts, the International Maritime Bureau warned in a recent report.

The number of kidnappings at sea more than tripled last year to a 10-year high of 62, the maritime watchdog said in its annual piracy report for 2016. In particular, waters off southern parts of the Philippines, where a local Muslim extremist group known as Abu Sayyaf is active, are becoming an increasing danger to commercial vessels, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based agency.

Last year's kidnappings compared with 19 in 2015 and nine in 2014. Nigeria claimed the largest share, accounting for 29. But the IMB called for special attention to an escalation of attacks in areas around the Philippines and Malaysia, which were ranked second and third on the list with 18 and 10 reported kidnappings, respectively.

The IMB said the "escalation of crew kidnapping is a worrying trend in some emerging areas," particularly the Sulu Sea between northeastern parts of the island of Borneo and the southern Philippines.

Besides vessels that were actually boarded or hijacked by pirates, many ships were harassed and chased by boats carrying armed groups, according to the report. In October, six armed men boarded a South Korean cargo ship sailing off the southern Philippines and robbed the crew while abducting two crew members.

In November, 10 militants attacked a cargo ship sailing in the same area, kidnapping six members of the crew and injuring another.

An attempted attack on a tanker carrying chemical products was also reported.

Defensive measures

Major shipping companies are facing an urgent need to reinforce the defense of their vessels and take steps to avoid attacks, such as changing shipping routes.

In addition to tugs, barges and fishing boats, an increasing number of larger merchant ships have become targets of pirate attacks in recent years, according to the IMB. The organization is advising shipping companies to avoid the Sulu Sea and route vessels west of Borneo.

While kidnappings for ransom increased, sea piracy as a whole continued to decline. A total of 191 piracy incidents were reported globally last year, about a 20% drop from 246 during the previous year and the lowest level in two decades.

Pirate attacks in Indonesia, which topped the list for 2016, fell sharply to 49 from 108 in 2015.

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