Somali Pirates Target India Seafarers

Indian sailors have become specific targets of Somali pirates due to the Indian Navy's strong response to a problem that has assumed alarming proportions, making Indian seafarers wary of operating ships that pass through waters frequented by Somalia pirates in the Arabian Sea and northwestern Indian Ocean, a major trade transit area.

The Indian Navy has responded aggressively to pirate attacks, capturing 61 at one go in March. The pirates had been living on a hijacked ship about 1,000 km off the Indian coast. As a result, the pirates have targeted Indian seamen. Freed or rescued seamen say they have been tortured mercilessly. India's seafaring community is estimated at over 100,000, forming 6 percent of the global merchant mariners.

Matters have come to a head recently after Somali pirates refused to release seven members of a 15-man crew aboard MV Asphalt Venture that was captured in September 2010. This is even after being paid a huge multi-million ransom.

Instead, the pirates, via a statement released to the media, say they declared a "war on India." In an audacious move they have demanded that New Delhi release over 100 pirates captured by the Indian Navy in exchange of the lives of the Indians in their custody.

The pirates have also started coming closer to Indian shores, hundreds of miles from their African coastal base. The closest Somali pirate attack to the Indian mainland was on Jan. 28 when a container ship was approached by pirates in two speedboats around 65 nautical miles north of Minicoy Island, or about 400km west of Cochin (Kerala). The Indian coast guard responded to the mayday and sent an aircraft. A previously hijacked fishing vessel acting as a mother vessel was spotted in the vicinity.

However, the real possibility of "war" seems remote, according to a Hong Kong-based security consultant who deals with anti-piracy issues. As long ago as April of 2009 the pirates declared war on Americans after sharpshooters killed three pirates and captured a fourth after an abortive attack on a US freighter, but the war has never come off.

Both Malaysia and South Korea have also toughened their stance against piracy, with seven Somalis charged in a Kuala Lumpur court with piracy, which could result in the hanging of the adult members of the gang. South Korea also recently arrested five Somalis with the intention of putting them on trial in Korea.

"One possible reason why these threats are not carried out in cold blood – most killings have occurred during rescue attempts – is the pirates' recognition that any systematic murder of captured seafarers would be labeled terrorism by the international community (probably the UN)," the security consultant told Asia Sentinel. "This could quickly end the present lucrative ransom business as it is illegal to make any payments to terrorist groups."

Nonetheless, in India the latest hostage situation is being compared to the emotionally charged scenario created by Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists who hijacked an Indian Airlines jetliner in 1999 to demand release of captured militants in Indian jails.

New Delhi capitulated. Earlier this year, in the absence of an official and clear hostage policy, authorities released key leftist rebels in the state of Orissa, in exchange of an abducted officer.

Meanwhile, relatives of the Indian crew on board hijacked or missing vessels have been urging the government to act and the matter has been raised in Parliament at their insistence. On the basis of petitions filed by affected family members, India's apex Supreme Court has also mandated New Delhi take action.

With emotions running high, India will need to get its act together.

It is estimated that Somali pirates are holding nearly 600 crew members captive out of which 50 are Indians. Such is the fear now that it has affected Indian trade in the region.

Indian coal imports from South Africa are now being diverted to longer routes even as buyers are opting for purchase of the critical fuel from Australia and Russia to totally avoid the Indian Ocean.

Ironically, the targeted attack on Indian sea farers has been due to a strong response by New Delhi to take on the pirates.

From October 2008, New Delhi stationed an Indian warship at the Gulf of Aden to assist Indian-flagged merchant vessels. Ships from other nations have also been protected by the Indian presence. Indian anti-piracy patrols have also been deployed around the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius, at the request of these governments.

Joint actions by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard have prevented as many as 29 hijacking attempts and neutralized three "mother-ships" (used by the pirates), the Vega 5 in March 2011. India was also instrumental in the successful passage of the United Nations Security Council's anti-piracy resolution.

New Delhi has now has a bigger job in hand to tackle the latest situation arising out escalated Somali piracy that is showing every sign of worsening.

The country has persistently refused to initiate any form of special force action to "hot pursuit" the pirates into their bases. The response has been more "passive" in nature with pre-emption and prevention being the motto, like it has been for terrorist suspected to be holed up in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Yet, there is urgent need for coordinated action among several affected countries and their Navies. The Kuala Lumpur based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has said that 97 out of the 142 maritime and trade related attacks this year have been by Somali pirates. This year the number of attacks is three times last year.

Highlighting the raised cruelty factor, in 2006 only two crew members in total were injured, this year seven seamen have already been killed and 34 seriously injured. IMB has said: "Figures for piracy and armed robbery at sea in the past three months are higher than we have ever recorded in the first quarter of any past year."

"Given the amounts they have made recently, I would anticipate ever-better armed and trained pirate crews at the top end and proliferation of wannabes at the lower end," J Peter Pham, Africa director with US think tank the Atlantic Council, has been quoted to say.

Taking note of the situation and clearly indicating that it is only joint action by nations that can root out the problem, as in the case of terrorism, federal Indian defense minister A K Antony has said, "Piracy in the high seas is becoming a serious problem. The Indian Navy is in touch with other navies on this, since piracy occurs in the IOR, especially in Somalian waters and other areas."

In an assessment, the National Maritime Foundation, Delhi has said: "the lives of Indian hostages will have to be given due importance. Apart from staying the course in its present anti-piracy policies, a multi-disciplinary task force that includes all the principal stake-holders is urgently called for."

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com