Calcutta, May 15: A seven-hour encounter between police and a band of hostage-takers at the mouth of Bay of Bengal last night ended in the rescue of 28 fishermen and arrest of 14 pirates this morning.
As the guns blazed, a fishing trawler went up in flames on the Matla river in the remote Sunderbans, about 150 km from Calcutta. A police bullet had hit a diesel jerry can.
The fishermen had sailed from the Kultali fishing harbour along the sometimes meandering, sometimes turbulent Matla on Saturday afternoon.
When near Kalash island ' one of the many blanketed by thick mangrove forests near the delta ' on Sunday morning, they spotted a boat following them.
In no time, the fisher folk were intercepted and forced to switch off the trawlers with around 20 guns aimed at them. They were bundled into one of the trawlers and their drums and jerry cans of reserve fuel stacked in another.
'The pirates stopped a passing boat and ordered the occupants to carry one of the kidnapped fishermen to Kultali, so that he could inform the fishermen's association about the ransom demand of Rs 1 lakh,' a senior South 24-Parganas police officer said.
On reaching Kultali, the fisherman headed straight to the police station.
A team led by assistant sub-inspector Angshupati Malakar set out on the rescue mission in a couple of hours. By the time, his men reached Kalash, the kidnappers had sailed some 30 km farther towards the Bay through the labrynth of islands.
The police launch reached the place where the fishermen had been confined around 10 at night, some seven hours after it had set sail.
The pirates opened fire almost immediately.
As the trawler carrying the reserve fuel caught fire and became a fireball in water, the pirates on it panicked and jumped into the river and swam towards the police launch screaming to be allowed to surrender.
The rest of the gang, though, started up the engine and sped towards the sea. The police closed in on this group in 10 minutes.
The pirates, stunned by the explosion, the conflagration and the police chase, gave in without a fight this time.
Four pirates, four fisher- men and the assistant sub-inspector of police sustained bullet injuries.
The injured fishermen and pirates have been admitted to MR Bangur Hospital. Malakar has been shifted to SSKM Hospital for an emergency surgery.
The arrested pirates and the rescued fishermen were brought to the Kultali police station around 7.30 this morning.
South 24-Parganas superintendent of police S.N. Gupta went there this afternoon to interrogate the pirates.
Presidency range deputy inspector-general of police Surajit Kar Purakayastha said last night's was one of the longest and fiercest encounters between the police and the pirates of the Sunderbans.
'We realise now that the pirates roaming the riverine Sunderbans are heavily armed. We will have to strengthen vigil in the area,' he added.
Yasin Gazi, the secretary of South 24-Parganas' biggest body of fisher folks ' Raidighi Fishermen's Association ' said the police had fired at least a hundred rounds.
'We've time and again requested the police to step up patrol in the Sunderbans. This incident should act as an eye-opener,' he added.
The fishermen taken hostage on Saturday would have sailed in the high seas for at least a week before returning home with a catch that would include hilsa, bekti, prawns, pomfret, mackerel, sardine and other estuarine fish.
This time of the year is lean season for fishing, though. The peak period begins with the onset of monsoon.
But pirates don't need the right season to strike.