Pirate 'mother ship' sunk by India was Thai trawler

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The Independent Online

The pirate "mother ship" sunk last week by the Indian navy was in reality a Thai fishing vessel that had been seized by pirates just hours earlier. Fourteen members of its crew are still missing and one has been found dead.

Officials from an international maritime agency said it had been informed of the situation by the ship's owners, Bangkok-based Sirichai Fisheries, after they had interviewed a surviving crew member who told them what had happened. That crew member, a Cambodian, is currently recuperating in a hospital in Yemen.

Last night the Indian Navy stood by its actions, saying its cruiser INS Tabar had only sunk the trawler, Ekawat Nava5, after itself coming under fire from pirates aboard the ship. However, given the fanfare with which India last week celebrated its actions and given the emerging details that suggest the navy failed to liaise with other agencies before taking action, the development is sure to be an embarrassment for the naval top brass.

Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said of the incident that took place in the Gulf of Aden on 18 November: "The Indian navy assumed it was a pirate vessel because they may have seen armed pirates on board the boat which has been hijacked earlier. We are saddened with what has happened. It's an unfortunate tragedy. We hope that this incident won't affect the anti-piracy operation by the multi-coalition navies there."

But he added: "We hope that individual navy warships that are patrolling the gulf would coordinate with the coalition forces or request information from us [to avoid such incidents]."

Last week, the Indian navy said that the Tabar, patrolling in the area since November, had attacked and sunk the pirate "mother ship" after it ignored requests to stop and be searched. After making several requests, the Navy said the response from the vessel was that it would blow up the Tabar if it came any closer. At that point, an intense exchange of fire ensued, with the supposed pirate ship catching ablaze and sinking.

A spokesman for the Indian navy, Commander Nirad Sinha, said yesterday the Tabar had been responding to threats from pirates. "Insofar as we are concerned, both its description and its intent were that of a pirate ship," he said. "Only after we were fired upon did we fire. We fired in self defence. There were gun-toting guys with RPGs on it. Pirates take over ships They've been doing that since the days of Long John Silver."

But it appears a lack of communication between different navies operating in the area may have been a factor. Wicharn Sirichaiekawat, the managing director of Sirichai Fisheries, told the Associated Press his company had contacted the IMB after receiving reports from other ships that the Ekawat Nava5 had been seized.

The British Navy then responded to a request for help but said that if the pirates had already boarded the vessel, any sort of attack could put the lives of the crew in danger. "The British navy instructed us to wait until the pirates contacted us," he said. It is unclear what information the Indian Navy received before confronting the trawler as it has no direct links with the IMB.

In recent weeks there has been a flurry of attacks by pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. In the past fortnight they have seized eight vessels, including a Saudi supertanker with a $100m cargo of crude oil. A total of 15 ships with almost 300 crew remain in the hands of pirates, who have demanded multi-million dollar ransoms. Ships from the navies of Denmark, India, Malaysia, Russia, the US and Nato are currently patrolling the area.