A suspected pirate vessel that was destroyed by the Indian navy last week near Somalia was actually a Thai fishing trawler that had been hijacked by pirates, a maritime official said Wednesday.
Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, said one Thai crew member died when the Indian frigate INS Tabar fired on the boat in the Gulf of Aden on Nov. 18.
Fourteen others are missing and a Cambodian sailor was rescued four days later by passing fishermen, he said. The IMB received a report on the apparent mistake late Tuesday from Bangkok-based Sirichai Fisheries, which owned the Ekawat Nava5 vessel, he said.
"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," Choong said.
India's navy last week said the INS Tabar, which began patrolling the gulf on Nov. 2, battled a pirate "mother vessel" on Nov. 18, setting the ship ablaze.
In New Delhi, Indian navy spokesman Commander Nirad Sinha admitted Wednesday it was possible the ship was hijacked but defended the INS Tabar's action, saying it was responding to pirates' threat to attack it.
"In so far 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 defense. There were gun-toting guys with RPGs on it."
Cambodian survivor relays mishap
Choong said Sirichai Fisheries found out about the mishap after speaking to the Cambodian sailor, who is now recuperating in a hospital in Yemen. The trawler was headed from Oman to Yemen to deliver fishing equipment when it was hijacked, he said.
"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," Choong added.
Somalia, an impoverished nation caught up in an Islamic insurgency, has not had a functioning government since 1991. Somali pirates have become increasingly brazen recently, seizing eight vessels in the past two weeks, including a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil.
There have been 96 pirate attacks so far this year in Somali waters, with 39 ships hijacked. Fifteen ships with nearly 300 crew are still in the hands of pirates, which have demanded multimillion dollar ransom.
At present, warships from Denmark, India, Malaysia, Russia, the U.S. and NATO patrol a vast international maritime corridor, escorting some merchant ships and responding to distress calls in the area.
Shippers worldwide have called for a military blockade of the waters off Somalia's coast to intercept pirate vessels heading out to sea, but NATO officials said there were no such plans. France has also rejected such a call, saying it was not feasible.