Dec 2, 2007

Well primed to repel attacks


A group of Malaysian journalists had the rare opportunity of visiting the Royal Malaysian Navy base at Layang-Layang Island and sharing the experience of military personnel stationed there.
LAYANG-LAYANG Island is situated in a remote area in the South China Sea, 343km northwest of Kota Kinabalu.
Known as Swallow Reef, it is an atoll about 0.1km in size and is located in the vicinity of the disputed Spratly Islands.
(Comprising more than 100 small islands or reefs, the Spratly Islands are claimed in whole or in part, and occupied by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.)

Staying tough: Two Royal Malaysian Navy Paskal special forces members taking part in an exercise in Pulau Layang-Layang.
Layang-Layang is dubbed the “Jewel of the Borneo Banks” as it is known worldwide for being a top dive site. It was declared by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as within Malaysia's EEZ and the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) began operating a naval base on the island in 1983. The base began with the construction of a small living-cum-operations quarters. More buildings were added later, including two air-conditioned accommodation blocks, an aircraft landing strip, which can be used by Hercules C-130 and CN235 aircraft, two hangars, a radar station, an air traffic control tower, watchtowers and a jetty.
There is also a Fisheries Department research base here.
Patrols by navy soldiers in CB90H attack vessels and larger, faster patrol boats are carried out around the island.
The RMN’s elite Paskal or naval Special Forces commandos also help to maintain security.

Well prepared: Malaysian military personnel on Pulau Ubi, one of five remote islands in vicinity of Spratly Islands off Sabah.
It is also the location of the Layang-Layang Island Resort, which was constructed in 1989 and is the only place here that provides accommodation for divers who come from all over the world to marvel at the corals and vast marine life in the crystal-clear waters surrounding the island. A large windmill, the only one of its kind in Malaysia, was erected on the naval base. Maintained by Tenaga Nasional, it harnesses power from wind speeds of up to 50 knots per hour to provide additional electricity supply to the base, which is powered by diesel generators.
Several anti-ship and anti-aircraft guns are placed on several areas on the island and the RMAF personnel operate a Starburst air defence system to prevent low-level air attacks here.
The soldiers said the Starburst missile can target and hit hostile aircraft from 5km away.
The presence of soldiers from the Special Forces on the island demonstrates the sensitivity of the situation involving the overlapping claims on the many islands within the Spratlys archipelago.
Military personnel are needed to maintain Malaysia’s control of the island and also to protect the rich marine life surrounding it, said commanding officer of the Layang-Layang RMN Leftenan Khairul Nislah Ahmad.
His men maintain security on Layang-Layang and four other nearby islets or reefs - Ubi, Mantanani, Siput and Peninjau.
These islands are identified in international maps as Swallow Island (Layang-Layang), Ardasier Reef (Ubi), Mariveles Reef (Mantanani), Erica Reef (Siput) and Investigator Reef (Peninjau).
Lt Khairul said the islands were important strategic assets for the country and were believed to contain natural resources such as oil, phosphorous and natural gas. Meanwhile, the reefs are teeming with a beautiful and diverse marine life such as corals and many types of fish, which are great tourist attractions.
The commercial income from tuna fishing activities in Layang-Layang alone could amount to RM70mil annually, he revealed.
“We are also entrusted with the task of ensuring that only fishing vessels with permits are allowed into the area and fishermen they cannot catch legally-protected fish,” he said.
“Our troops also make patrols to prevent intrusions by foreign fishing boats or other types of vessels into our waters.
“Incidents such as illegal fishing, bombing of fish and theft of corals have been eliminated due to our presence in the area.”
Men stationed at the five islets monitor the movement of foreign ships and aircraft in the area, including military submarines that constantly ply the South China Sea, he added.
Lt Khairul said the armed forces personnel were normally stationed on the island on a three-month rotation.
The soldiers are transported to their respective stations on the five islets by navy boats from Layang-Layang once they arrive from Kota Kinabalu, where the Naval Area Base II (Mawila II) is located.
In the midst of a dinner held to welcome the journalists at the base, also known as Stesen Lima, heavily-armed Paskal commandos suddenly burst in, shouting that attackers had reached the base.
There were deafening rattles from automatic rifles and shots from anti-aircraft guns while thick smoke rose into the night sky.
In the confusion, two members of the media including my colleague, photographer Ong Soon Hin, were whisked away.
When the hullabaloo had settled, we were told that it was only a drama to demonstrate to us what would happen if the base was attacked.
RMN officer Lt Madya Zulhilmi Sahbudin, 25, who was stationed at Mantanani five months ago, said his duty, like that of his colleagues in Layang-Layang, was to ensure that the island was protected from intruders.
“For me there’s no other place like it in Malaysia. The waters around this island are blue and crystal-clear.
“It’s beautiful and many types of fish and corals can be seen,” he said.
Laskar Kanan Abdul Hail Hussin, 31, from Kota Kinabalu, agreed, saying that many Malaysians would jump at the opportunity to be stationed on a peaceful and remote island in the vast South China Sea.
But he confessed that boredom could creep in sometimes.
“I was happy to be selected to come here. The sight of the clear seawater and white beaches cannot be easily forgotten,” he said.
Due to security concerns, none of the soldiers on Layang-Layang would talk about movements of military ships in the area.
But every incident of close encounters with foreign ships and aircraft are logged, and I found out that soldiers sometimes saw military aircraft, ships, and submarines in the seas around the five islets.
However, no incident or confrontation has occurred.

Mar 2, 2007

Melaka Straits Training - Naga Emas

MELAKA STRAITS - After 600 years of terrorising seamen in the Straits of Melaka, pirates have finally met their match in the Royal Malaysian Navy's (RMN) Special Marine Forces (Paskal).

To show that it means business, Paskal held its first ever exercise codenamed "Naga Emas" in the Melaka Straits last Feb 21 and 22. Pirates have struck in the Melaka Straits since the Melaka Sultanate days mainly because the narrow waterway was used by some 30,000 ships a year and proved to be a lucrative ground for sea robbers.

Last year alone, 58 cases of pirate attacks were reported to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Coordination Centre (MECC), while the Indonesian side recorded 95 cases. Among the victims were Japanese oil tanker MT Global Star which was hijacked for three months by pirates in February last year and Panama-registered MV Alondra Rainbow cargo ship which was seized by 15 pirates in November 1999 before Indian warship INS Prahar went to its rescue.

Before that, two ships from Thailand - Siam Xanxai and Marine Master - also fell prey to pirates in the Melaka Straits. The extent of the problem was evident when three Indonesian pirates arrested by marine police last Oct 12 admitted to committing 30 robberies in the straits - 19 on merchant vessels and 11 on fishing boats.

On the night of Feb 21, journalists were invited to observe the Naga Emas exercise on board the MISC-owned MV Bunga Teratai 2 container ship. As the reporters were attending a briefing by MV Bunga Teratai 2 skipper Kapt Abdul Aziz Yunus, seven masked men armed with Russian-made AK102 rifles burst into the briefing room. One of the intruders handed to Abdul Aziz a paper containing their demands.

Abdul Aziz announced over the intercom at the control centre to inform the crew and passengers that the ship had been seized and it would sail to Melaka Straits at 5am as demanded by the raiders. That marked the start of the Naga Emas exercise. MISC reported the incident to the relevant government agencies, and the RMN intelligence corps was directed to gather data on the hijacked ship which was then in Port Klang waters.

Command and logistics vessel KD Mahawangsa and warship KD Serampang were directed to await the emergence of MV Bunga Teratai 2 at the Staits of Melaka the following day. On the morning of Feb 22, on board KD Mahawangsa 30 Paskal commandos armed with MP5 machineguns were waiting to spring into action. Finally, Paskal commanding officer Kapt Nasaruddin Othman gave the order to storm MV Bunga Teratai 2 at 1.30pm, using helicopters and four assault boats travelling at 60 knots to intercept the ship.

When the four boats closed in on the stern of MV Bunga Teratai 2, the 10-storey tall ship was travelling at 10 knots. A Paskal-designed winch was used to lift the Paskal members from the boats onto the deck in a matter of five minutes even as the ship was moving.

The pirates were overpowered, with the last two being forced to surrender after the commandos stormed the navigation room they were guarding. Paskal commanding officer Kapt Nasaruddin Othman, the exercise coordinator, said the drill was meant to deter pirate activities and to test Paskal's tactical capabilities to storm hijacked ships. "We want to send a signal to the elements (pirates) concerned that RMN and Paskal are ever ready to be deployed for operations," he told a news conference on board KD Mahawangsa soon after the exercise ended.

He urged other shipping companies to allow RMN to carry out similar exercises on their ships as the experience gained would come in handy in actual crises. The exercise, which involved 390 personnel of RMN, MISC, the National Security Council and other agencies, met its objective of testing the capabilities of Paskal.

Following the exercise, Paskal has been put on standby round-the-clock to combat piracies, especially those involving local ships. Abdul Aziz told Bernama that most skippers have identified the Sunda Straits area (between West Jawa and Sumatra) as the most piracy-prone stretch.

Before becoming skipper of the MISC ship, Abdul Aziz himself had experienced a pirate attack in that waterway. "Fortunately, they (pirates) were not violent, and they only escaped with several electronic equipment from the ship," he said. As a precaution, he now switches on all lights on deck while sailing and berthing. "It's not a good practice of seamanship, but since others do it we follow to prevent people with bad intention from getting near the ship," he said. He said all doors were also locked and crewmen are prohibited from loitering on the deck at night. "So if there are people outside, we know they are intruders," he said. - Bernama

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