Third Tug Attacked by Pirates in Sulu Sea

Injured crewmember of the TB Henry rescued by Malaysian forces (image courtesy MMEA)

Published Apr 19, 2016 9:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Friday, the towing vessel TB Henry was hijacked and four of her crewmembers kidnapped off of Lahad Datu, Malaysia, near the intersection of Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine waters. The attackers have not been definitively identified, but officials suspect militants associated with the designated terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. The kidnapping was the third in two weeks. 

The tugboat TB Henry and her 10 crewmembers had finished delivering a cargo of coal to the island of Cebu. They were making the 500 nm return trip to Tarakan, North Kalimantan, Indonesia, when pirates attacked their vessel in the region of Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost point of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Philippines - the same area as the previous two hijackings. 

The TB Henry's crew resisted the pirates and prevented them from taking possession of the tug and her tow. One was shot in the chest while resisting capture. The wounded crewmember and five others managed to escape, and were rescued by Malaysian forces; four others were taken hostage. The kidnappings bring the total number of mariners held hostage in the attacks to 18, the majority of them Indonesian nationals.  

On Tuesday, Indonesia's coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, told reporters that the operator of the first vessel in the string of hijackings – the tug Brahma 12 – had negotiated to pay a ransom of one million dollars for the release of her 10 crewmembers. He said that the discussions in that case were relatively straightforward, but that the pirate group holding the second set of hostages was more difficult to negotiate with. Pandjaitan suggested that the kidnappings were motivated by financial considerations. "They are a group that's motivated by money, not ideology," he said. 

Separately, Indonesian military spokesman Tatang Sulaiman called for joint maritime patrols with the Philippines and Malaysia. "We are trying to set up cooperation on coordinated patrols between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines," he said. "If there is some kind of disturbance or security threat, it could be overcome in [our] respective areas," Sulaiman said, adding that Indonesia had already sent two warships to the area.

However, the forceful government response to the outbreak of pirate attacks is creating unintended consequences for the local population, officials say. On Tawi-Tawi and nearby islands, business owners and residents reported that following the tug hijackings, Malaysian security forces have effectively created a maritime blockade in an attempt to prevent infiltration by Abu Sayyaf. Traders and entrepreneurs have reportedly had to stop shipments of goods with partners in Sabah island, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, as Malaysian authorities are intercepting shipping. Tawi-Tawi gets approximately 80 percent of its goods from Sabah, local officials say. 

The congressional representative of Tawi-Tawi, Congresswoman Ruby Sahali, appealed to the Philippine government to help address the issue with Malaysian officials. 

“This problem is so serious. At least 13 wooden-hulled vessels carrying food supplies from Sabah, bound for our province, were recently stopped by Malaysian authorities,” she said, adding that the price of rice has doubled since the start of the blockade.