KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – The number of maritime kidnappings hit a ten-year high in 2016, with waters off the southern Philippines becoming increasingly dangerous, the International Maritime Bureau said Tuesday.
While the overall number of pirate attacks has declined in recent years, the IMB said 62 people worldwide were kidnapped for ransom at sea last year compared to only 19 in 2015 and nine in 2014.
“The kidnapping of crew from ocean-going merchant vessels in the Sulu Sea and their transfer to the southern Philippines represents a notable escalation in attacks,” the IMB said in a report.
It urged shipowners to avoid the Sulu Sea, which lies between eastern Malaysia and the Philippines, by routing ships to the west of Borneo island.
In a string of incidents in the Sea last year, groups of armed men – said to be either from or linked to the Abu Sayyaf – ambushed ships and seized crew for ransom.
The Abu Sayyaf are based on remote and mountainous southern Philippine islands.
Their leaders pledge allegiance to the Islamic State group, but analysts say they are more focused on lucrative kidnappings.
Noel Choong, head of the IMB’s Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre, said groups linked to militants were carrying out the kidnappings – particularly off West Africa and in the Sulu Sea.
Despite the rise in kidnappings, the number of overall pirate attacks continued to fall due to better policing and ships taking more precautions.
A total of 191 cases of piracy on the high seas were recorded in 2016 compared to 246 in 2015.
World piracy has been on the decline since 2012 after international naval patrols were launched off East Africa in response to a spate of violent assaults by Somali-based pirates and others.
The number of cases has also plummeted off Indonesia thanks to more efficient patrols.
“The continued fall in piracy is good news but certain shipping routes remain dangerous, and the escalation of crew kidnapping is a worrying trend in some emerging areas,” said Pottengal Mukundan, director of IMB.
In addition to the Sulu Sea, the Gulf of Guinea was a kidnap hotspot, with 34 crew taken in nine incidents last year.
The number of all pirate attacks off Nigeria rose from 14 in 2015 to 36 last year.