The pirate "mother ship" sunk last week by the Indian navy was actually a Thai fishing trawler seized hours earlier by pirates, a maritime agency said Wednesday, but the Indian navy defended its actions, saying it fired in self-defense.
One Thai crew member died and 14 sailors remain missing after the Indian frigate INS Tabar fired on the trawler, the Ekawat Nava5, in the Gulf of Aden on Nov. 18, according to Bangkok-based Sirichai Fisheries, which owned the boat, and Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur.
"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 said last week that the INS Tabar, which began patrolling the gulf on Nov. 2, battled a pirate "mother ship" on Nov. 18, setting the ship ablaze.
Fired in self-defense
In New Delhi, Indian navy spokesman Commander Nirad Sinha said Wednesday that the INS Tabor was responding to threats from pirates on board.
"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 defense. There were gun-toting guys with RPGs on it."
Sirichai Fisheries found out about the mishap after speaking to a Cambodian sailor who was rescued four days later by passing fishermen, said Wicharn Sirichaiekawat, the company's managing director. The sailor is recuperating in a Yemen hospital.
The Thai trawler was headed from Oman to Yemen to deliver fishing equipment when it was hijacked.
"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.
Headed toward Somalia
Sirichaiekawat said his company had contacted the International Maritime Bureau after getting messages from other boats in the region that the trawler had come under attack. The boat had a transmitter sending out its location, which indicated the boat was headed toward the coast of Somalia, he said.
Sirichai Fisheries requested that naval ships in the area help their stricken boat. The British navy responded, asking for information, but later told the company that pirates had already boarded the ship and any sort of attack on them could cause the crew to be harmed.
"The British navy instructed us to wait until the pirates contacted us," he said.
Meanwhile, the International Maritime Bureau alerted the multi-coalition forces patrolling the region and other military agencies in the area, sending them photos of the vessel, Choong said.
However, it was unclear if the Indian navy had received the information because it has no direct communication links to the maritime bureau, he said.
"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, Choong added.
Did darkness play a role?
It's unclear whether darkness played a role in what happened. The Indian navy said earlier that the final showdown with what they called the "mother ship" occurred after nightfall, but also said the entire incident had taken a few hours.
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, who have demanded multimillion dollar ransoms.
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.