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Indonesia fears piracy surge on busy shipping route could lead to 'new Somalia'

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Indonesia fears piracy on a busy shipping route along its maritime border with the Philippines could hit levels seen in Somalia unless security is tightened, its chief security minister said on Thursday, following a spate of kidnappings.

[JAKARTA] Indonesia fears piracy on a busy shipping route along its maritime border with the Philippines could hit levels seen in Somalia unless security is tightened, its chief security minister said on Thursday, following a spate of kidnappings.

The route lies on major shipping arteries that analysts say carry US$40 billion worth of cargo each year and is taken by fully laden supertankers from the Indian Ocean that cannot use the crowded Malacca Strait waterway.

For the first time, concerns over the rising tide of maritime attacks by suspected Islamist militants are disrupting coal trade between the Southeast Asian neighbours, with two Indonesian coal ports suspending shipments to the Philippines.

Up to 18 Indonesians and Malaysians have been taken captive in three attacks on tugboats in Philippine waters along the route, by groups suspected of ties to the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf militant network.

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Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group, which has posted videos on social media pledging allegiance to Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, has demanded 50 million pesos (US$1.1 million) to free the Indonesian crew. "We don't want to see this become a new Somalia," Indonesian chief security minister Luhut Pandjaitan told reporters, referring to the southern Philippine waters of the Sulu Sea, where the abductions took place.

Piracy near Somalia's coast has subsided in the last few years, mainly due to shipping firms hiring private security details and the presence of international warships.

The foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines will meet in Jakarta to discuss the possibility of"joint patrols in order to secure the passage from Indonesia to the Philippines," Mr Pandjaitan said.

He did not give a date, but said the armed forces chiefs of the three countries would meet in Jakarta on May 3.

Authorities at two Indonesian coal ports have blocked departures of ships for the Philippines and more suspensions are expected, said Pandu Sjahrir, chairman of the Indonesian Coal Mining Association, and a director of Jakarta-listed coal producer Toba Bara Sejahtera. "Some people cancelled shipments from both sides," Mr Sjahrir told Reuters.

A company with a fleet of 40 dry cargo ships saw a silver lining, however. "If Indonesia bans tugs and barges from exporting coal then it will have to travel in larger cargo ships, of 32,000 to 64,000 tonnes," said Khalid Hashim, managing director of Bangkok-listed Precious Shipping. "All this would of course be beneficial for shippers like us." Indonesia, the world's largest thermal coal exporter, supplies 70 per cent of the Philippines' coal import needs, which Indonesian government data shows stood at about 15 million tonnes, worth around US$800 million, last year.

The Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre has warned ships sailing in the Celebes Sea and northeast of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo to stay clear of small suspicious vessels.

The Somali piracy outbreak at the end of the previous decade cost the shipping industry billions of dollars, as pirates paralysed shipping lanes, kidnapped hundreds of seafarers and seized vessels more than 1,000 miles from the coast.

REUTERS

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