A distress signal was received on 11th March 2011, by a Dornier Maritime surveillance aircraft, belonging to Indian Navy, while it was on a routine sortie some 600 miles west of the Indian coast. The distress signal was from a merchant vessel, MV Vancouver Bridge and had said that they were under a pirate attack. The aircraft Immediately moved to the area where MV Vancouver Bridge was sailing and noticed that pirates from a mother ship had launched two whiffs and were preparing for an attack on MV Vancouver Bridge. The pirates, on seeing the Naval aircraft, aborted their attempt to attack MV Vancouver Bridge, and returned to the mother vessel to try and escape from the scene. During this rescue sortie, the aircraft identified the mother vessel as Vega 5, originally a fishing vessel, which the pirates had hijacked on December 28, 2010. Following its hijack, Vega 5, a Mozambique flagged fishing vessel, was being used as a mother vessel to launch pirate attacks on ships sailing on high seas and had carried out several such attacks. It had become a great risk to international shipping since then.
The surveillance aircraft immediately informed this fact to the naval command center of the Indian Navy, after which, INS Khukri, a missile corvette, and INS Kalpeni, a fast attack craft were diverted to intercept and investigate Vega 5 as both these ships were already under deployment to undertake anti-piracy operations in the region. At night on March 13th (Sunday), INS Kalpeni closed in on Vega 5, some 700 miles off Kochi in southern India and asked them to stop. However, taking advantage of the darkness, Vega 5 launched two skiffs with armed pirates, who fired at the Naval vessel. The naval ship responded with limited firing, as a result of which, the two skiffs sank, and a fire was started on board of the mother vessel. This action from the naval ship, forced the pirates to abandon their skiffs and mother vessel, and jump into the sea. The pirates were then nabbed with the help of navy personnel from INS Kalpeni and INS Khukri. 61 Pirates, all believed to be Somali nationals, were arrested and 13 crew members were rescued from Vega 5. According to Navy, the fire on the board of the mother vessel was started, as the ship was carrying excess fuel in drums on the deck, which caught fire during firing. The pirates were carrying about 80 to 90 small arms or rifles and a few heavier weapons, likely rocket-propelled grenades. Luckily there were no casualties.
This episode happens to be Indian navy’s third anti-piracy operation this year, with the capture of 28 Somali pirates last month and another 15, in January. All the pirates are to be prosecuted in Mumbai for attacking Indian ships.
This latest episode highlights once again, the seriousness of this danger to Indian shipping and maritime trade as 90 percent of India’s trade passes through the sea lanes. It is also vital for the nation’s energy security that is dependent on supplies of oil from the Gulf countries. The Indian navy has been on anti-piracy patrols along the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden, since November 2008 and the Arabian Sea off Lakshadweep, since November 2010 and during these operations, Indian warships have sunk three mother ships of pirates, apprehended over 50 brigands and safely escorted over 1,500 cargo vessels, including 300 Indian-flagged. However considering the gravity of the situation this effort appears to be just a miniscule or token participation. The data published by International Maritime Bureau in this connection, is worth looking at.
Figures for piracy and armed robbery incidents
as reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Center in 2011.
(Updated on 28 February 2011)
Incidents Reported for Somalia:
Total Incidents: 61
Total Hostages: 243
Total Killed: 7
Current vessels held by Somali pirates:
Out of this 711 hostages held by the pirates, 136 persons are of Indian origin, some of them being in captivity for more than 11 months. It is reported that they are being treated badly and get food after only two or three days. It is therefore no wonder, that there has been a big hue and cry from family members of the Indian merchant navy officers, held by Somali pirates. They feel that the government isn’t taking any initiative to get the hostages freed at all.
It however seems that due to the pressure from the Merchant navy officers association, Government has awakened from the deep slumber and has taken some positive steps. Indian Navy has been asking the Government to give it full powers, to take all action within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas and in consonance with the best practices of other navies that are patrolling the Gulf of Aden and off Somali coast. It would appear that navy has been given permission to act only on last Friday (11th March 2011). A government spokesman has issued a statement saying that,
“The navy’s action will be as per necessity and proportionality of the piracy situation it encounters while on patrol. Rules of Engagement for every possible situation during a pirate attack and hostage crises has been considered and operational options has given”.
Some more actions appear to be on the anvil. These include appointments of armed guards (similar to Sky Marshals) and creation of ‘ Safe houses or rooms’ on every ship by fortifying the bridge or engine rooms with satellite communication equipments. This would ensure that in the event of capture of the ship by pirates, the ship can still contact Indian Naval authorities and give distress calls.
Navy’s action on last Friday perhaps indicates that it has been given freedom to act. These measures however are in no way enough or sufficient to start making an effect or eradicate the piracy problem from Gulf of Aden and Somalia coast.
The Somalia pirates have become bold enough now to threaten even India. A self-described pirate in Somalia who gave his name as Bile Hussein said the arrests by India will lead to “trouble” for Indian sailors and ships. He said that
“They better release them, considering their people traveling in the waters, or we shall jail their people like that,” he said. “We are first sending a message to the Indian government of releasing our friends in their hands or else they have to be ready for their citizens to be mistreated in the near future.”
This aptly demonstrates the need to flex muscles by the Government of India. While negotiating with the Pirates for release of sailors held in captivity is of priority, what is more important is the issue of effective prevention of piracy in future. Like the No fly zone imposed on Iraq during last decade, time has come to impose a 100 or 200 KM wide no sailing zone all along the Somalia coast. India must approach the United nations security council for imposing such a barrier.
There is a chance that only with such drastic steps and effective use of the Indian navy, the Somalia coast piracy can be controlled. If this is not done, the situation in the Arabian sea may soon start looking like sixteenth or seventeenth century scenario, as described by Robert Louis Stevenson in his famous book ‘Treasure Island’, when Pirates ruled the seas.
16th March 2011