The Tamil Nadu police on Friday arrested 33 crew members of an American ship detained last week for illegally entering Indian waters with a huge cache of arms and ammunition.
Earlier reports said all 35 members on board were arrested, but a press release issued by the office of the Tamil Nadu director-general of police said “two crew members were left for upkeep and maintenance of the vessel, till the company makes alternative arrangements for the ship’s maintenance”.
The MV Seaman Guard Ohio, an armed ship operated by a US maritime security company AdvanFort, was detained last Friday with 35 people on board by the Coast Guard east of Tuticorin, around 600 km south of Chennai, for failing to produce papers authorising it to carry weapons and ammunition in Indian waters.
According to the press note, the ‘Q’ Branch CID of the police arrested eight crew members and 25 guards on Friday morning, leaving two crew members for upkeep and maintenance of the vessel.
The release stated that a case was registered in Tharuvaikulam Marine police station against the crew members and guards on board the vessel on the complaint of the assistant commandant of Indian Coast Guard, Tuticorin, on October 13.
The complaint included offences under the Arms Act, 1959, Essential Commodities Act, 1955, and Motor Spirit and High Speed Diesel (prevention of malpractices in supply and distribution order), 1990.
It said investigation by the ‘Q’ Branch CID of the police revealed that the said vessel was found in the territorial waters of our country and was in possession of a huge quantity of arms and ammunition without valid authorisation of documents. Further, the said vessel has drawn illegally about 1,500 litres of diesel from private sources in our land without following the procedure.
During the course of investigation, the release added, the ‘Q’ Branch CID has seized 35 arms and about 5,680 ammunitions from the vessel. Further investigations are on, the police said.
The state government on Friday said the arrested seamen were produced before a magistrate court in Tuticorin and remanded in custody. The Central and state police are investigating the case, police officials said, adding that the state has taken the case seriously and has refused to set the sailors free.
Earlier, Coast Guard Commandant Anand Kumar said the ship was stopped on October 11 and was being held in the southern port of Tuticorin along with its 10 crew and 25 armed security guards until required documentation is submitted.
The crew and security guards included British, Estonian, Indian and Ukrainian nationals, Kumar said. Eight out of them were Indians. The southern tip of India is close to major trading routes from Asia to Europe.
Many cargo ships now travel with armed guards to deter pirates. Sri Lanka, close to Tuticorin, is a popular boarding point for private armed guards.
The ship was reportedly in Indian waters for three days before it was detected. According to the police, the crew broke several Indian laws and maintained no log of the arms on board.
It was reportedly carrying 31 assault rifles and around 5,000 rounds of ammunition, which were seized by the Coast Guard.
Deputy National Security Adviser Nehchal Sandhu had earlier said he did not think that the detained ship was involved in gunrunning.
“I don’t think so.” He added that it is likely to be owned by a private maritime security company. Some media reports have said a US-based anti-piracy company owns it.
AdvanFort claims the ship entered the Indian waters to escape the fury of cyclone Phailin, which made landfall on India’s eastern coast (near Gopalpur in Ganjam district of Odisha) on Saturday. The vessel, however, was detected far from where the cyclone hit Odisha and Andhra Pradesh last weekend.
India is very sensitive about the presence of armed security guards on merchant ships after the shooting deaths of two fishermen by armed Italian marines last year in February. The marines were part of a military security team on a cargo ship when they fired at the fishermen, mistaking them for pirates.
The two Italians are facing trial in India for the deaths.