Saturday, February 03, 2007
The Malaysian police helicopter appeared suddenly, banking sharply over the Japanese ship. As a bomb exploded on the deck, spewing wasabi-green smoke, five commandoes slid down a rope from the hovering aircraft. Screaming "get down! get down!" the black-clad team chased two burly men who appeared to be pirates, overpowering and handcuffing them at gunpoint within minutes. But the commandoes and two grinning "pirates" were soon posing for TV cameras and congratulating each other on a job well done: the first ever anti-piracy exercise involving forces from Japan, Malaysia and Thailand. "It was plain sailing. Everything went smoothly," said Abdul Manaf Othman, an assistant commander in the Malaysian police, whose marine and air wings and special forces commandoes took part in the exercise near Thailand's resort island of Phuket. Officials hope such drills will sharpen skills and increase coordination among marine police from countries trying to stamp out piracy in Southeast Asia's Strait of Malacca, the world's busiest shipping lane, and until recently the most pirate-infested.
Japanese Coast Guard Ship YashimaAuthorities in some Asian countries have also been stepping up anti-piracy cooperation in recent years due to fears of possible maritime terror strikes in the strait, through which 65,000 vessels pass each year, carrying half the world's oil and more than a third of its commerce. Japan's interest is obvious. Much of its oil from the Middle East, and its exports to Southeast Asian and Arab markets, pass through the strait. "Fortunately, around Japan there is no piracy," said Capt. Nobuharu Kagami, director of the Japanese coast guard's Piracy Countermeasures Office. "But the safety of Malacca Straits is very important to Japan. For this reason, cooperation with countries (in the region) is very important to us," said Kagami, speaking aboard the Japan coast guard ship Yashima, which played the part of the hijacked vessel during the three-hour exercise. There were a few glitches. A Thai marine police boat, meant to chase the "pirates," had an engine problem. But a swift exchange of messages allowed a substitute Malaysian speedboat to be dispatched. "The problems were cleared. No problem. We joined together very well," said Thai police Col. Lerdchai Thinrat, who led his country's team. Language barriers were minimal, with ships' and helicopters' radio operators using English. "It is true that for the Japanese people, English language is a headache," said Kagami. "But we will try to use English more effectively." Since 2000, Japan has been holding bilateral exercises with Southeast Asian nations as it seeks to raise its non-trade profile in the region. Tokyo has provided logistical and technical support to some regional maritime security agencies. In August, it hosted a discussion on terrorism at sea with officials from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Increased enforcement and vigilance in the Malacca Strait is already showing signs of success: Attacks there have declined since July 2005, with 11 cases reported last year. This exercise, which provided all the drama of a Hollywood thriller, began with two "crew members" of the "hijacked" ship drifting in a lifeboat in choppy seas. A Thai Marine Department ship rescued the men and a search began for the ship, which had been "taken over" by five pirates. Malaysian police boats and the Japanese coast guard ship Yashima — playing a double role as itself and the hijacked ship — joined the search, along with a helicopter from the 130-meter-long (425-foot-long) Yashima. The action came to a head with the Malaysian commandos dropping from the sky.