Friday, November 21, 2008

Indian Navy takes on Somali Pirates

INS Tabar escorts the MV Jag Arnav to safety after rescuing it from a hijack attempt.

On November 11 marine commandos (marcos) of the Indian Navy operating from the INS Tabar, a Talwar-class frigate patrolling near the Gulf of Aden, repelled attempted pirate attacks on the Saudi-registered merchant vessel MV Timaha and the Indian-owned bulk carrier MV Jag Arnav. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea routes, has surged this year and last weekend pirates captured a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million of oil, and are demanding $25 million in ransom. The Indian Navy also tasted blood in its first hostile action against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

The Indian Navy's stealth frigate INS Tabar, which so far has escorted 35 merchant vessels passing through the region, on Tuesday night engaged the pirates for the first time and sank a "mother vessel" that had two speedboats in tow. Pirates use mother ships, generally hijacked trawlers or deep-sea dhows, to tow speedboats from which they launch their attacks.

"INS Tabar retaliated in self defence and opened fire on the mother vessel," the navy said in a statement. "As a result of the firing by INS Tabar, fire broke out on the vessel and explosions were heard, possibly due to exploding ammunition that was stored on the vessel."

Naval oficers on board the warship said they spotted pirates moving on the deck with rocket propelled grenade launchers. "On repeated calls, the vessel’s threatening response was that she would blow up the naval warship," the navy said. India deployed the frigate INS Tabar to escort Indian ships after the country’s shipping firms said they were losing $450,000 a month on cost overruns and delays in meeting deadlines.

Noel Choong, head of the piracy reporting centre at the IMB in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, said "the situation is already out of control," but praised the Indian navy for striking the mother ship. "We hope more navies will follow suit and stop suspected pirate boats," he added.

The Gulf of Aden is vital for the trade and economy of India and the rest of the world as it provides access to the Suez Canal through which ships transit between Europe and Asia without having to take the longer and more expensive route around the southern tip of Africa. It is a crucially important route for oil tankers. Industry experts say the alternative trade route, round South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, would add some three weeks or more to a typical journey, pushing up costs for goods. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said a total of 199 incidents of piracy or attempted piracy were reported worldwide during January-September, of which 63 were in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast.

The Gulf of Aden is located in the Middle East with Yemen to the north, Somalia to the south and the Arabian Sea to the east. It is connected to the Red Sea by the Bab el Mandab strait. Somalia has been stuck in civil conflict for 17 years. Somali pirates are currently holding 13 ships captive in the Somali ports of Eyl and Hobyo in the Gulf of Aden.

Somali pirates, most of whom are based in the northern Puntland region, have forged links with criminal networks in Yemen during years of people-smuggling. "Now we are seeing Puntland essentially breaking down as an entity," said Rashid Abdi, Somalia expert at the International Crisis Group thinktank. "You're seeing a gradual takeover of the state by criminal gangs."

Combating piracy in the region requires "phenomenal efforts" as it covers an area of 2.5 million square nautical miles, the naval officer pointed out. "Currently, three groupings, including the US-led Combined Task Force-150, a NATO grouping and a European Union grouping, is patrolling the region. But, the task of coordination is not clear and thus operations become more complex.

A Delhi class destroyer, INS Mysore will replace INS Tabar in the Gulf of Aden, a Navy official told IANS on condition of anonymity. He said the destroyer will set sail from Mumbai soon. The 6,900-ton Delhi class destroyers are the largest indigenously built warships till date and pack more fire power in them than frigates.

INS Mysore carries on board two Sea King helicopters, along with a Cheetah or a Chetak, and stock 16 Uran missiles, 100mm AK 100 Gun, four multi-barrel 30mm AK 630 gun. With Marine Commandos, INS Mysore is said to be a potent force to patrol the Gulf of Aden to stop the pirates from attacking or hijacking merchant vessels.