Storm clouds gather over detained US ship - 35 seamen arrested, vessel owner denies entering Indian waters minus permit

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By G.C. SHEKHAR AND CHARU SUDAN KASTURI
  • Published 19.10.13
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Chennai/New Delhi, Oct. 18: An American ship loaded with weapons and ammunition that allegedly entered Indian waters last week without proper permits has sailed into a silent, internal tussle between multiple government arms trying to balance diplomatic ties with domestic political fears.

Tamil Nadu police today arrested the 10 crew members and 25 armed guards on the MV Seaman Guard Ohio --- a vessel that provides security against pirates to cargo ships --- accusing the seamen of violating multiple Indian laws. The ship’s Virginia-based owner has denied the charges to The Telegraph.

The arrests follow a week of negotiations both at Tuticorin port, where the ship is docked, and between Indian diplomats and their counterparts at the US embassy. The crew and guards include eight Indians, apart from British, Estonian and Ukrainian nationals.

Although Indian officials do not suspect the ship of trying to illegally ferry arms or challenge the sequence of events given by William Watson, the president of the firm that owns the Ohio, the shadow of a similar vessel from 2012 is dividing the government on how to react.

The Ohio has also reinforced India’s concerns over the absence of international norms to monitor privately armed anti-piracy ships that it accepts are needed to curb attacks on cargo vessels.

The Ohio, owned by AdvanFort International, was detained last Friday, and instantly rekindled memories of the Italian marines on a similar anti-piracy vessel who shot dead two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast in 2012 after mistaking them for pirates.

That incident has grown into a thorn in the otherwise warm ties between India and Italy. New Delhi cannot afford any cooling in ties with the US, its most important strategic partner.

The US State Department, though the American embassy, has sought details of the ship’s detention from the external affairs ministry. The British foreign office and the Estonian and Ukrainian embassies are nudging India for information and a quick resolution.

But ahead of national elections, the Tamil Nadu government has indicated to officials in New Delhi that it is determined to appear firm against the ship.

The Coast Guard, officials said, appears equally keen to show that it is in control of the nation’s coastal security after repeatedly facing charges of failure in the five years since Pakistani terrorists reached Mumbai’s shores in a fishing boat and held the city to ransom for four days.

“We’re confident we’ll resolve this sooner rather than later,” an official said. “But there are some of us who want to resolve this with the kind of heat and dust this deserves, and others who want to make an example out of this case.”

Watson, whose account of the sequence of events leading to the Ohio’s detention mostly matches the version officials here lay out, said he could not understand why his crew had been detained.

“Right now, we feel we’re the victims,” he said, speaking over the phone from Herndon, Virginia. “I don’t want to hypothesise about why India wants to do it (arrest the crew) but we just can’t understand it.”

The Q branch --- the intelligence wing --- of Tamil Nadu police has accused the crew of entering Indian waters without a permit, carrying arms and ammunition into Indian maritime territory without a licence, and of refuelling illegally. The police believe the ship, which docked at Kochi port last month, had then sailed to Sharjah before entering the Bay of Bengal.

Local fishermen had spotted the Ohio --- with its armed guards, guns and ammunition --- and had warned the coast guard, which set out to look for the vessel on October 12.

But Watson claimed the Ohio had never entered Indian territorial waters, a region circumscribed by a distance of 12 nautical miles off the coast, till the coast guard asked it to.

“We moved a little closer than expected because of Cyclone Phailin, but we never entered India’s territorial waters on our own,” he said. “We were then told to go in by the coast guard and we followed their instructions.”

Officials here confirmed that the Ohio did follow the coast guard vessel into Tuticorin port --- though they insist the vessel had already entered Indian territorial waters. Watson claimed the crew did not have the permit to enter Indian waters with arms and ammunition because it simply did not enter Indian marine territory till it was asked to.

He also claimed that the Ohio had refuelled at Tuticorin port through the local agent the ship normally uses, but officials said the agent was not authorised under the Essential Commodities Act to sell the 1500 litres of diesel the vessel needed.

For India, the Ohio, coming on the back of the dispute with Italy over its marines last year, reinforces worries over the lack of any regulation on such armed vessels. India has itself been a major victim of piracy, especially off the coast of Somalia, but is equally worried about disputes like the one with Italy.