Armed guards on anti-piracy patrols could well be used as a cover to launch another 26/11-type seaborne attack on India, Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi has warned. “If there are arms and ammunition and their existence is not known, it could lead to such a situation (26/11) in anybody’s waters,” Admiral Joshi said in response to a query at the annual Navy Day press conference. “It is an issue of very serious concern,” the Navy chief said, calling the industry of providing armed guards to merchant vessels ‘entirely unregulated’.
“In some cases, there are even combatants who have taken up employment,” he said without revealing details on their nationalities of these combatants. A senior coast guard official however says that several retired Pakistani Army and Navy personnel had been hired by nearly 140 private security companies that hire out armed security guards to protect merchant vessels from Somali pirates in the North Indian Ocean. “Given the close links between the Pakistani army and non-state actors like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, there is every possibility dubious security firms could be used to infiltrate terrorists on our shores,” he said.
While the Navy and the coast guard have worried about the unregulated presence of armed guards they raised an alarm after the October 12 detention of a private vessel off the Tamil Nadu coast. The Indian Coast Guard intercepted the MV Seaman Guard Ohio off the coast of Tuticorin. The vessel, which the Navy calls a ‘floating armory’ was owned by a US-based private security firm and had 25 armed guards from four nationalities. The coast guard discovered that the vessel did not maintain inventories of the weapons and personnel on board.
The menace of Somalian pirates hijacking merchant vessels for ransom has triggered off a sunshine industry at least since 2008. Private companies operate smaller merchant vessels in international waters just off the coast of several countries. From here, they embark and disembark security personnel directly onto merchant vessels protecting them in the piracy infested waters of the North Indian Ocean. Such a mid-sea transfer helps circumvent International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations prohibiting the carriage of weapons on merchant vessels in ports.
The prospect of vessels loaded with weapons, sailing in the close vicinity of the coastline, has however, led to several complications in India, as the Navy chief explained. “Lack of any provisions to deal with such vessels or armed personnel hampers legal actions. We have recommended that this necessitates formulation of a regulatory framework by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO),” he said.
One of the reasons the floating armories operate in close proximity of the Indian coast is because of a ‘High Risk Area’ or a zone vulnerable to pirate attacks close to the Indian coast which has been promulgated by the IMO. This means that the merchant vessels sail in close proximity of the west coast of India which complicates matters for the Indian Navy and coast guards. The Indian government has been pushing for a rollback of the HRA since last year. The Navy chief said that there had been no acts of piracy within 450 nautical miles of the Indian coast in the past two years because of a sustained campaign carried out by the Navy.