This was a 30-minute deployment at sea that the Indian Navy would not forget in a long time. In a swift, surgical operation off the Somalia coast on Tuesday morning, helicopter-borne commandoes of the Indian Navy thwarted two piracy attempts and rescued Indian and Saudi Arabian merchant vessels from heavily armed sea robbers.
The operation, the first of its kind after the Navy deployed a warship to patrol pirate-infested waters in the Gulf of Aden last month, was carried out by INS Tabar — India’s most modern stealth frigate — and involved its elite Marine Commando force that responded to two distress calls within a span of half an hour.
The first distress call came from a Saudi Arabian chemical tanker, the NCC Tihama, at 10 am. The tanker was being shot at by heavily armed pirates on board three speed boats off Aden. The Navy, which launched an armed helicopter with marine commandoes from INS Tabar within 15 minutes, thwarted the attack by firing “warning shots” at the pirates.
While the helicopter was on its way back to the warship, the Navy received another distress call at 10.30 am from the Indian registered MV Jag Arnav, located 25 nautical miles away, which too came under attack from a different set of pirates.
The armed aircraft was then diverted towards the Indian ship and reached just in time to prevent the pirates from boarding the merchant vessel. “We received a distress call that pirates are firing with automatic weapons on an Indian merchant vessel. The helicopter reached just in time when the pirates were trying to board the ship,” a senior Navy officer said. There is still no word on whether there were any casualties in the operation, the officer added.
The MV Jag Arnav, a 38,265-tonne bulk carrier owned by the Great Eastern Shipping Co Ltd, had transited the Suez Canal a few days ago and was heading towards India when it came under attack from the pirates.
After carrying out the airborne operation, the Indian warship escorted both the Indian and Saudi Arabian warship to safer waters.
This is the second incident on the high seas where the Indian Navy has rescued merchant vessels from pirates. In the first case in 1999, the Navy rescued a Japanese cargo vessel Alondra Rainbow that was hijacked by a ten-member Indonesian pirate gang in the Malacca Straits. The vessel was intercepted 400 km off Goa after a high-speed chase.
The Indian Navy started conducting anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden from October 23, after strikes by sea robbers increased in the past few months. The patrols, sanctioned by the Defence Ministry after persistent requests by the Indian Navy, are being carried out off the Somalia coast.
In an indication that the Navy will respond with full force to any piracy attempts on Indian vessels, Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta said, “Indian Naval Ships operating in piracy-infected areas are always in a high state of alert and have the capability to intervene by air or ship-borne weapons. Their mandate is to ensure that the safety of our sovereign assets is maintained.”
The Navy had been asking for permission to patrol the Gulf of Aden for the past few months after a series of piracy attempts on merchant ships in the area. The Navy, which has been trying to increase its reach in the region, wanted to coordinate patrolling efforts with foreign navies which have been carrying out similar patrols.
The Navy feels that it needs greater authority to tackle piracy off the Somalia coast. While the Navy has proposed that the Chief of Navy Staff be given the direct authority to sanction action against pirates in the high seas, the ministry has said that all permissions should be routed through the South Block.