NEW DELHI – 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. The Indian navy defended its actions, saying it fired in self-defense.
Fourteen sailors from the Thai boat have been missing since the Nov. 18 battle, which was hailed as a rare victory in the fight against increasingly brazen pirates who have rattled the international shipping industry and created chaos in vital sea lanes. At the time, the Indian navy boasted of sinking the vessel and showed pictures of it engulfed in a fireball.
But on Wednesday a maritime agency and the boat's owner said it was actually a Thai trawler, the Ekawat Nava5, that had been boarded by pirates just hours before.
"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," said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur.
One of the crew members was killed and another rescued, said Wicharn Sirichaiekawat, the managing director of Bangkok-based Sirichai Fisheries, which owned the boat. Fourteen are still missing.
Sirichaiekawat said they found out about the fate of the boat after speaking to the survivor who was rescued four days later by passing fishermen.
The Thai foreign ministry said Wednesday it was looking into whether the Indian navy acted correctly.
Indian navy spokesman Commander Nirad Sinha defended the navy's actions, saying the INS Tabar — a 400-foot war machine, carrying cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and six-barreled 30 mm machine guns for close combat — was acting in self defense.
"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."
Later, Indian navy chief Adm. Sureesh Mehta said the ship's actions were in line with international practices.
"The rules of engagement obviously are that if you are threatened by someone, you take necessary action and that is how it is done by everybody," Mehta told the CNN-IBN news channel.
It was unclear if the Indian warship was in contact with other forces in the area, since at least some had been warned that the Thai trawler had been captured.
Sirichaiekawat said his company had contacted the International Maritime Bureau after getting messages from other boats in the region that the trawler, which was headed from Oman to Yemen to deliver fishing equipment, had come under attack.
Sirichai Fisheries requested that naval ships in the area help their stricken boat. The British navy responded, but later told the company that pirates had already boarded the ship and any 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 coalition forces patrolling the region and other military agencies in the area, sending them photos of the vessel, Choong said.
The Indian navy has no direct communication links to the maritime bureau, he added.
"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.
Choong, who had earlier praised the sinking of the vessel a "an action that everybody is waiting for," said he hoped the mistake would not hamper future operations against the pirates.
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.
Also Wednesday, two foreign journalists were kidnapped in northern Somalia while reporting on the rampant piracy in the region, said regional police spokesman Abshir Abdi Jama.
The journalists' nationalities could not be confirmed. Jama said one was believed to be British. Foreigners, journalists and humanitarian workers are frequently abducted for ransoms in Somalia.
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.