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LONDON-Marine mutual protection and indemnity insurers have stepped in to help fund an anti-piracy center that has saved them possibly millions of dollars in theft claims since 1991.

Five P&I clubs have agreed to pay $10,000 each over the next three years to help fund the $100,000 annual running costs of the Regional Piracy Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The RPC was set up by the London-based International Maritime Bureau, a unit of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce.

The five clubs are the United Kingdom Mutual Steam Assurance Assn. (Bermuda) Ltd., Assuranceforeningen Skuld P&I Club of Norway, The Swedish Club, The Standard Steamship Owners Protection & Indemnity Assn. (Bermuda) Ltd., and The Britannia Steam Ship Insurance Assn. Ltd.

IMB Director "Muku" Mukundan said other members of the International Group of P&I Clubs, which has 14 member clubs, are considering contributing to the piracy center. He is hopeful some will make commitments within the next few weeks. Voluntary contributions from the shipping industry and related organizations fund the piracy center.

The IMB also is looking for support from marine underwriters at Lloyd's of London and the Institute of London Underwriters, although Mr. Mukundan acknowledges they are less likely to help because piracy generally is covered by P&I clubs and not under the hull and cargo policies written by Lloyd's and the ILU.

The RPC is a 24-hour information center that keeps track of acts of piracy around the world. Using reports from a number of sources, such as ships, ports and local policing authorities, it makes regular satellite broadcasts to warn ships and local law enforcement agencies of suspicious craft movements, boardings and armed robbery from vessels.

In its report for 1996 issued last month, the IMB recorded 175 piracy attacks around the world, up from 170 in 1995 and the highest number since the RPC was opened in 1991. However, the IMB attributes the increase largely to better reporting of attacks. Nevertheless, it warns: "There is no doubt that attacks on vessels have become more audacious, more violent and an issue of serious concern to shipping and seamen."

Of the 175 attacks last year, 160 involved boardings or attempted boardings of vessels. The remainder involved thefts in port, hijackings or vessels being fired upon. Indonesia is by far the most likely country for a piracy attack, accounting for 53 of last year's reported incidents. Southeast Asia and the Far East in total accounted for 100 attacks. Brazil was the second most dangerous country, with 16 reported attacks.

Mr. Mukundan says the success of the RPC can be seen in the marked decrease in the number of attacks in the Malacca Straits. In 1991, 32 vessels there were attacked-which was one of the main reasons the RPC was formed-whereas in the past three years there have been only two or three attacks there per year.

A typical piracy attack is the one last November in Galasa Straits, Indonesia, on the tanker OM Sunshine. Seven pirates boarded it, and $10,000 was stolen.

Two days later, the bulk carrier MV Olga was attacked in the same area by what is believed to have been the same gang, this time six armed pirates who stole $17,000. These are the types of claims covered by P&I clubs.