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Police in a southern Indian port city arrested the crew of a U.S.-owned ship Friday for entering Indian waters illegally with a large cache of weapons and ammunition on board.
The MV Seaman Guard Ohio was detained Oct. 12 by the Indian Coast Guard and is currently anchored at a port in southern Tamil Nadu state. Eight crew members and 25 security guards were arrested after they failed to produce documents allowing them to carry the weapons, Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh told reporters Friday.
Virginia-based security firm AdvanFort-- which owns the ship-- claims that all arms and ammunition on board are licensed and were necessary to support their anti-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean.
"The weapons on board the vessel are completely legal. They are all registered. They were purchased legally and are used for our own use in safeguarding ships in the high risk area,” William H Watson, AdvanFort president, told the Press Trust of India.
“Our weapons are for one purpose only and that is for our arms guard to use in counter piracy operation,” he added.
The U.S. ship's crew included Indians, British, Ukrainians and Estonians. Two crew members were not arrested and were allowed to stay on board the ship to carry out maintenance work.
The ship's captain told investigators that the company provides armed escorts to merchant vessels traveling in pirate-infested waters in the Indian Ocean. AdvanFort said the vessel was used primarily as an accommodation platform for its guards between duties on commercial ships as they travelled through dangerous areas.
According to Advanfort the men were equipped with uniforms, protective equipment, medical kits and rifles and ammunition to help them provide counter-piracy protection. Police seized 35 automatic weapons and nearly 5,700 rounds of ammunition from the security guards on the ship, police said.
There are differing accounts of where the ship was when crew members were arrested.
According to Indian authorities, it was sailing off the coast of Tamil Nadu, but Advanfort issued a statement saying the ship was allowed to enter an Indian port to refuel during bad weather.
"In fact, to me the irony here is that many of the ships there that my guard protect are Indian. While they are in port, they can't be doing their job," Watson said.
"The crew and security guards are cooperating with the investigators," Secretary Singh said, adding that information about the case had been shared with representatives from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
The embassy said it had no comment on the matter.
Advanfort has been at the forefront of the battle to stop piracy, and pushed to prove the legality of using private security companies to protect shipping. The seas from the east coast of Africa to India and beyond have become increasingly congested with vessels involved in fighting who target ships moving along this important trade route.
Warships from several countries including the US, China, India, Italy and the United Kingdom are involved in the anti-piracy operation. Analysts say anti-piracy measures-- such as using private security firms-- are currently poorly regulated.
India has been a strong supporter of multi-national efforts to stop the pirates, who mostly come from Somalia, but it has also become increasingly sensitive to any intrusions in its maritime borders.
This came after two Italian marines on an anti-piracy operation allegedly shot two fishermen inside Indian waters last year.
Fox News correspondent David Piper and the Associated Press contributed to this report.