Shipping warned to avoid Sulu and Celebes seas

There were six incidents of armed robbery against ships in Asia during January, ReCAAP says. Credit: ReCAAP

Seafarers have been warned vessels to avoid the Sulu and Celebes seas if possible, following the execution of three Vietnamese seafarers in July.

The warning was issued by piracy watchdog the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), which said that since March last year, 59 crew members had been abducted in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and waters off Eastern Sabah. Of these, at least 4 have been killed and 16 are still in captivity.

The organisation’s executive director, Masafumi Kuroki, said the situation remained fluid and, while regional efforts to enhance security were welcome, vessels and their masters had a duty of care.

While piracy attacks have fallen overall in Asian waters, ReCAAP warned against complacency and welcomed Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines launching a trilateral maritime patrol agreement to address the piracy, armed robbery against ships, kidnapping of crew at sea, and other transnational crimes along the shared borders of the three countries.

“In dealing with the increasing threats to ships transiting the Sulu-Celebes Sea, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has implemented several regulations and guidelines with strict enforcement of security and safety measures to prevent potential abductors from boarding ships.”

ReCAAP said it emphasised “the importance of collective and shared responsibility among all stakeholders, including the littoral states’ enforcement agencies”, and that the shipping industry needed to institutionalise its efforts on land and at sea. It stated that more had to be done to “strengthen regional co-operation and co-ordination among the littoral states in conducting co-ordinated patrols, law enforcement, and apprehension of perpetrators”.

For merchant shipping “we keep our advice to the shipping industry to reroute the ships where possible … or otherwise remain very vigilant,” Kuroki said. “Although there have been no abductions since May, the situation is not yet stable,”

Adding to the concern, in July, militant jihadist group Abu Sayyaf killed a Vietnamese sailor in the Sulu village of Buhanginan. The murder came soon after the bodies of two other Vietnamese seafarers were discovered in Basilan. Both had been beheaded.

Along with the increased patrols, the PCG has established a recommended transit corridor between Moro Gulf and Basilan Strait, in a move that mirrors efforts in the Gulf of Aden when the Somali piracy attacks were at a peak in 2008/09.

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