Prague, 27 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The motor tanker "Cherry 201" was on a routine run with a cargo of palm oil in the Malacca Straits, bound for the port of Belawanon, a regional export hub on the island of Sumatra in western Indonesia.
Suddenly a powerful speedboat accosted the ship. Men armed with automatic weapons swarmed aboard.
The boarders imprisoned the 13 crewmembers and sent the captain ashore to convey to the ship's owners their demand for the equivalent of about $50,000 in ransom.
The owners eventually agreed to pay a lower amount. But after five weeks, when they still had not done so, the pirates shot dead four crewmembers. The remaining nine jumped overboard and escaped.
The plight of the Cherry last January may have been the worst incident in the world of piracy on the high seas so far this year. But it was not the only one.
The Malaysia-based International Maritime Board (IMB) reports this week that seafarers reported 182 cases of piracy worldwide in the first half of 2004.
That number is down slightly from the first half of 2003, when pirates struck 234 times by the IMB's count. But the board says it is hardly any cause for celebration. It was the second-highest number of attacks since the IMB started keeping count 12 years ago.
And the severity of the attacks has also increased. Pirates killed 30 people between January and June 2004 -- almost twice as many as in the first half of 2003.
RFE/RL asked IMB Deputy Director Jayant Abhyankar if piracy is growing or diminishing as a threat. Abhyankar said it's hard to tell. "It's more brutal, and also it is difficult to prejudge whether the trend is actually down, because we had a similar situation [one year], where [numbers of] attacks were down and then they shot up in the second half," Abhyankar said.
The number of piracy cases is down slightly from the first half of 2003, when pirates struck 234 times by the IMB's count.
World shipping interests set up the IMB in 1992 under the auspices of the International Chamber of Commerce to monitor piracy, compile and issue warnings of piracy threats, and promote piracy prevention.
Abhyankar defines what constitutes maritime piracy.
"Well, we define it simply as the act of boarding any ship with intent to commit personal or any other crime or the capability to use force in the furtherance of [such an] act," Abhyankar said.
Abhyankar was asked if most modern instances of piracy involve theft of a ship's cargo or theft of the entire vessel.
"Well, in most cases it's something different from both scenarios you mentioned. I would say that in 95 percent of the cases it is to steal property from the crew or the ship -- you know, their personal effects, such as cash -- and then make a quick getaway," Abhyankar said. "This is what we call 'maritime mugging.' In the remaining cases, it is actually to steal the cargo on board and sometimes the ship itself -- 'hijacking,' we call it. But that's by and far much less frequent than in the first case."
The IMB says modern piracy occurs most often off Indonesia and Nigeria. The Mediterranean Sea, historically a hunting ground for pirates, has been piracy-free in modern times.
The Malacca Straits, where the "Cherry 201" was seized, is a point of particular concern. Hundreds of vessels pass through the narrow waterway every day, carrying half the world's oil shipments and two-thirds of its liquefied natural-gas shipments.
The rise of piracy in the high-traffic area has led some maritime observers to worry the straits may become a target of a large-scale terrorist attack, using a fuel-laden vessel to create a massive "ship bomb" that could be rammed into a port along the straits.