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Tug Robbery Illustrates Return of Petty Theft in the Singapore Strait

Seized scrap metal aboard a wooden launch in the Riau Islands
Image courtesy Riau Islands Police

Published Nov 7, 2022 6:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

Though global piracy has fallen to its lowest level in three decades, robbery remains a problem in the waters of the Singapore Strait, as illustrated by an arrest last weekend in the Riau Islands.

On Saturday, seven pirates were caught in the act of stealing scrap metal from a barge towed by the tug Bina Marine 81, according to the Riau Islands Police. A spokesman for the department said that 1.8 tonnes of scrap were recovered from four small launches, which the pirates used to board the tow at night. 

The theft was initially spotted by Singaporean authorities on radar. Using an information-sharing agreement, they passed the tip-off to police in the Riau Islands for interdiction. 

All seven suspects are residents of Batam, aged 19-46. They face charges of theft under Indonesia's criminal code. 

Boardings and robberies in the Singapore Strait are a long-running concern, and there has been an uptick over the course of the year to date, according to Singapore's Information Fusion Centre. From January to September, the agency recorded 10 reports of robbery involving tugs and barges in the strait. 

This activity level is higher than seen in the past two years, and the center believes it reflects a rebound in tug and tow traffic after the end of the pandemic. Tug and tow operations are frequently targeted because of their slow speed and low freeboard.

According to the center, pirate gangs approach tugs and barges in small wooden boats, operating in groups of 7-10 individuals. They are often brazen enough to continue with the crime after they are spotted by crewmembers, fleeing only when law enforcement approaches. 

The center advises tug operators to convoy with other vessels where possible, use searchlights at night and modify barges to make them less vulnerable to boarding.