Armed pirates stole $2.5 million worth of diesel fuel from an oil tanker off the coast of Malaysia and took the captain and two other crew members with them, underscoring increasing threats to shipping in one of the world's busiest waterways, Malaysian maritime officials said Wednesday.
The daring theft follows a spate of eight armed robberies at sea this year in the region, through which about a quarter of the world’s oil shipping passes.
Eight Indonesian pirates in a fishing vessel boarded the Naniwa Maru No. 1 at about 1 a.m. local time on Tuesday off the coast of western Malaysia, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said.
The pirates pumped about 800,000 gallons of the 1.18 million gallons of diesel carried by the tanker into two waiting vessels and made off with three Indonesian crew members, including the captain and chief engineer, the agency said.
The 4,999-deadweight-ton vessel had an 18-member crew of Indonesian, Thai, Burmese and Indian nationals.
"We are very concerned," said Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's Malaysia-based Piracy Reporting Centre. He said the ship was hijacked near the Malaysian town of Port Klang.
"It's the first time this has happened so far north in the Malacca Strait, and the first time they have kidnapped the crew. It's not an area where we have seen the modus operandi of ships hijacked for their cargo," he told Reuters.
Malaysian shipping authorities believe some of the crew could have been part of the plot to steal the diesel.
"There is a possibility that the abducted crew was involved in the hijack based on new leads and that their personal documents, clothes and belongings were taken along with them," the MMEA said in a news release.
Regional security officials have previously said armed gangs prowling the Malacca Strait may be part of a syndicate that can either have links to the crew on board the hijacking target, or inside knowledge about the ship and cargo.
Such intelligence-led hijacks have involved seizing tankers so that oil cargoes can be transferred and sold on the black market, according to the officials, who declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Malaysian authorities are now working closely with their Indonesian counterparts to track down the two vessels and locate the missing crew.
Previous tanker hijackings and cargo thefts have taken place closer to Singapore, with five such incidents between 2011 and 2013, according to the government-to-government body Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia.
The oil tanker, registered in St. Kitts and Nevis and bound for Myanmar from Singapore, has been towed to Malaysia's Port Klang for further investigation.
Al Jazeera and Reuters