'Pirate' Ship Sunk by Indian Navy Was Thai Trawler

Thai ship sunk by Indian navy might have held more innocent crew than pirates.

November 25, 2008, 4:56 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov. 25, 2008 -- Last week's dramatic reports of an Indian navy vessel sinking a Somali pirate ship now appears to be a case of authorities mistakenly destroying a ship that the pirates had hijacked.

Updated media reports indicate that the sunken ship was actually from Thailand and had just been hijacked when the Indian warship, the INS Tabar, returned fire from what it believed was a "mother vessel," the large ships pirates use to launch their attacks.

The Indian navy said the Tabar encountered the vessel in the Gulf of Aden during an anti-piracy mission. When the Tabar asked the vessel to stop for further investigation, the pirates issued a message that they would "blow up the naval warship if it closed her."

According to a statement from the Indian navy, pirates could be seen roaming the upper deck with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. After the pirates fired on the warship, the Indian navy fired back, blowing up the vessel. Two breakaway boats sped away. One was recovered but abandoned, while the other escaped.

The Indian navy said its actions were necessary "to protect our seaborne trade, instill confidence in our seafaring community as well as function as a deterrent for pirates."

But according to media reports out of Somalia, including from the BBC, the sunken ship might have had more crew members on it than pirates. At least 15 crew members were aboard when it went down. A Cambodian-born crewman escaped and was saved by life jacket. He reportedly floated for several days before being rescued off the coast of Yemen. The other crew members are still missing.

There has been increasing pressure by the shipping community and by states whose commerce depends on the Gulf of Aden, such as Egypt, for the Combined Maritime Forces and the United Nations and NATO to do more.

A naval blockade has been proposed, as well as sanctions on Somalis found to be benefiting financially from the piracy. It's estimated that at least $30 million has been paid to pirates in the past year, and that with the capture of such high-profile ships as a Saudi oil tanker, the Sirius Star, and a Ukranian weapons-laden ship, the MV Faina, ransom payments could go well beyond $50 million this year.

Maritime officials estimate that more than 35 ships have been hijacked this year, with at least 18 still being held. And just today, news of another ship being hijacked in the Gulf of Aden surfaced. This time it was a Yemeni vessel loaded with steel, and the crew even included three Somalis.

"It's getting out of control," Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau said. "Despite the increase of the military warships, the pirates have a lot of opportunities. They come in great numbers and can attack many ships."

Meanwhile, the Combined Maritime Forces continues to recommend that ships protect themselves by taking recommended routes through an international corridor in the Gulf of Aden that's being patrolled for piracy, and by hiring private security firms and equipping their ships with anti-piracy measures, such as fire hoses on deck.

This latest incident involving the Indian navy highlights the problem: Militaries are required to follow maritime law, which considers piracy a criminal matter, and letting the governments of countries where the pirates originate handle it. But in Somalia's case, there is no functioning government -- and the country hasn't had one in generations.

Government officials promise to crack down on the pirates, but with the majority of the country now controlled by Islamic insurgents, and the federal government barely hanging on, enforcing any kind of policy seems unlikely.

"Ultimately, piracy begins ashore," Lt. Nathan Christensen of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said. "It is an international problem that requires an international solution. The international community together as a whole needs to engage ashore to deter these acts from starting in the first place."

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