India leads fight against Somali pirates

An Indian warship sank a Somali pirate 'mother ship.' At least 91 ships have been hijacked this year off the coast of Somalia.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Escort: The Indian warship INS Tabar, right, escorts the MV Jag Arnav to safety after rescuing it from an attempted hijacking by Somali pirates.
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After Somali pirates shook the international maritime community on Tuesday, hijacking a Saudi supertanker with more than $100 million worth of crude oil, the Indian Navy has struck back.

An Indian warship came under attack on Wednesday from a suspected pirate "mother ship," but managed to destroy the pirate ship, sending three speedboats packed with pirates fleeing for safety.

Meanwhile, the INS Tabar, a Russian-made, high-tech Indian warship, managed to thwart the attempted hijacking of an Indian cargo ship off the coast of Somalia.

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As the global community copes with the mounting pirate threat, India has taken a leading role in the fight. With nearly $100 billion of cargo passing through the pirate-laden Gulf of Aden each month, India cannot afford to let the threat go unchecked. It also puts the emerging Indian Navy front and center on the world stage.

"This was a commendable action against the Somali pirates," says Uday Bhaskar, an Indian defense expert. "The pirates have become audacious lately, venturing out into deep waters to attack foreign ships. This action by the Indian Navy will send out a strong message that they cannot get away with this."

Hijackings off the coast of Somalia accounted for a third of global piracy incidents this year, reports the International Maritime Board. Since January, at least 91 ships have been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, a 1 million-square-mile waterway between Somalia and Yemen.

Presently, pirates are holding as many as 17 captured vessels with more than 300 crew members, including the Saudi supertanker, the Sirius Star, and the Ukrainian vessel carrying at least 30 Russian-designed T-72 tanks.

While warships from eight different countries, including India, have deployed to the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy, the issue is particularly important for India.

The nation of 1.1 billion people provides one-sixth of the world's maritime workers and every month it sends 30 Indian-owned vessels carrying oil and other goods valued at $100 billion through the Gulf of Aden.

Indian shipping firms say they are losing $450,000 a month on cost overruns and delays due to piracy.

"India cannot wait to take action until the Somali pirates hit the coast of Bombay [Mumbai]," says Mr. Bhaskar. "They must be quarantined in their own waters before they cause more damage."

The INS Tabar, which was dispatched to the Gulf of Aden in October after a spike in piracy, has already escorted more than 35 Indian and foreign-owned ships through the waters off the coast of Somalia and thwarted two hijacking attempts, according to the Indian Navy.

Additionally, as the Indian military has recently been working to show off its increasing might, Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian Army general, says this is the first time the Indian Navy has independently carried out an attack this far away from its own shores.

It's also the first time India's Navy, the fifth largest in the world, has received authorization from the government to act autonomously. In the past, ships had to wait for orders from New Delhi before carrying out preventive as well as deterrent attacks.

"Fighting against militants in Kashmir is a different thing," says Mr. Mehta. "The Army commanders are directed ... by the power brokers in Delhi. But fighting pirates off Somalia, you need to make split-second actions."

Other than the US Navy, the Indian Navy has emerged as the most formidable maritime force in the Indian Ocean, he says. It now competes for influence in the area with China's sophisticated naval force.

India is in the process of expanding its Navy. Aside from adding nuclear submarines, it plans to commission three aircraft careers to its fleet by next year.

Still, when it comes to the piracy threat, Bhaskar stresses the need for a concerted, multinational naval effort to rein in the Somali marauders. "The Indian Navy cannot do this alone," he says. "We need to fight this menace collectively."

Aside from military action against the pirates, Bhaskar adds that the international community needs to develop a plan for how to take legal action against the pirates in the event any are apprehended. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and lacks the infrastructure to properly prosecute the pirates, he says. "They could be tried in a court in Mombasa [Kenya], if the international community can arrive on a consensus on this. But wherever you take them, they must not be released back in Somalia."

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