(CNSNews.com) – A week after the Indian Navy announced that it had sunk a pirate “mother ship” in the waters off the northeast African coast, it emerged that the ship was a Thai fishing vessel that had just been seized by pirates.
The ship’s owner told Indian and Thai media that the fate of the vessel, the Ekawat Nava 5, had only become clear after a surviving member of the crew was rescued and hospitalized in Yemen.
The incident has underlined the complexity of the challenge faced by navies trying to protect commercial vessels from a piracy pandemic in and around the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest sea routes, which links the Suez Canal and Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Since the beginning of this year, pirates operating from lawless Somalia have seized for ransom dozens of ships, among them a Ukrainian freighter carrying heavy weaponry; and a Saudi-owned tanker, the Sirius Star, which was carrying two million barrels of crude oil worth more than $100 million.
More than 200 hostages and around a dozen ships are reported to be currently in captivity.
Warships from the United States, European Union nations, Russia and India are patrolling in the area.
On Nov. 19, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy reporting center in Malaysia reported that a Thai fishing boat with 16 crew members had been hijacked the previous day.
The center’s head, Noel Choong, said the trawler had issued a distress call late on Nov. 17, saying it was being chased by pirates in two speed boats. The line had then been cut.
On Nov. 19, the Indian Navy reported that its frigate, the INS Tabar, had confronted a pirate “mother vessel” the previous day, and after coming under attack, had returned fire. Pirates had fled in two speed boats and the suspect vessel had been left to sink.
Ekawat Nava 5 owner Wicharn Sirichaiekawat on Tuesday was quoted as saying that pirates had boarded the trawler as it sailed from Oman to Yemen. The pirate attack was still underway when the confrontation with the Indian warship occurred.
A surviving crew member was rescued by a passing vessel after several days adrift, another was confirmed dead, and the rest were missing. The report was confirmed Wednesday by the IMB’s Choong.
The Navy maintained that its ship had come under fire in international waters and had retaliated in self-defense.
In its earlier statement about the incident, the Navy said that the suspect ship had two speed boats in tow, and “was similar in description to the ‘mother vessel’ mentioned in various piracy bulletins.”
When the frigate instructed the ship to stop for investigation, the response was a threat to attack, the statement said.
“Pirates were seen roaming on the upper deck of this vessel with guns and Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers. The vessel continued its threatening calls and subsequently fired upon INS Tabar.”
The warship then returned fire and explosions were heard of the other ship, “possibly due to exploding ammunition that was stored on the vessel.”
“Almost simultaneously, two speed boats were observed breaking off to escape. The ship chased the first boat which was later found abandoned. The other boat made good its escape into darkness.”
Since its deployment on November 2, the frigate had escorted more than 35 ships, including some that were foreign-flagged, through what the Navy called “the pirate infested waters of the Gulf of Aden.”
One week before the Ekawat Nava 5 incident, Indian forces prevented another hijacking attempt ship. The Navy said the INS Tabar had dispatched helicopter-borne commandos who prevented pirates from boarding an Indian bulk carrier, Jag Arnav, in the Gulf of Aden.
‘Mother ship’ warnings
The sinking of the supposed pirate ship drew praise, with editorial writers in countries from Canada to Australia saying it was the type of action required if the problem was to be tackled effectively.
Choong of the IMB’s piracy reporting center also commended the Indian Navy.
“It’s about time that such a forceful action is taken,” he told the Associated Press last week. “It’s an action that everybody is waiting for.”
Choong said he hoped other navies’ ships would take similar action. “If all warships do this, it will be a strong deterrent. But if it’s just a rare case, then it won’t work.”
Like other seafaring nations, India has been hard hit by the spate of Somalia-related piracy. On Tuesday, the Indian crewmembers of a vessel hijacked earlier this year arrived at New Delhi airport, to emotional reunion scenes with family members.
Their Japanese-owned ship was hijacked off Yemen and taken to the coast of Somalia, where the pirates held the 22 crewmembers for 62 days. They were released on November 16, reportedly after ship owners handed over a ransom of $2.5 million.
The Indian Navy is not alone in using lethal force against the pirates. On November 11, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland was involved in an exchange of gunfire with Somali pirates who had seized a Yemeni fishing vessel. Two suspected pirates were killed and the rest were handed over to Kenyan authorities for prosecution.
Suspicions that pirates are using elusive mother ships were strengthened by the fact that the oil tanker Sirius Star was boarded 450 nautical miles off the African coast – far too great a distance for the speed boats favored by the criminals.
The IMB itself has been warning about the presence of at least three suspected trawlers mother ships in the area.
“Intelligence sources revealed that there are now three suspicious vessels in the Gulf of Aden believed to be pirate mother vessels looking to attack ships with the intent to hijack,” it said in a recent statement that also carried pictures of the suspicious vessels.