India arrests 33 on ship bristling with arms and ammo

Authorities suspect vessel is a floating armoury for private security agencies fighting piracy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 7:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 7:20am

India has charged 33 men aboard an armed ship operated by a US maritime security firm for failing to produce papers authorising it to carry weapons in Indian waters, police said yesterday, a move that could trigger diplomatic tensions.

The captain and the chief engineer were not among those arrested in Friday's action.

The crew have been charged with illegal procurement of diesel and possession of arms and ammunition without required documentation.

"The captain kept saying that he would produce the required documentation, but whatever was produced was inadequate," said a police officer.

Police are still checking the authenticity of the documents on the ship, said Chacko Thomas, a spokesman in India for Virginia-based AdvanFort, which owns the Sierra Leone-flagged ship Seaman Guard Ohio. India detained the ship last week and it was being held in the port of Tuticorin along with its crew and armed security guards, which included British, Estonian, Indian and Ukrainian nationals.

The US-owned ship was found carrying some 30 assault rifles and around 4,000 rounds of ammunition that it did not declare or account for. The ship reportedly entered the Indian port of Kochi about 45 days ago without the weapons being declared or found before appearing in Indian waters again heavily armed.

"My suspicion is that the boat is a floating armoury for private security agencies protecting against pirates," Deputy National Security Advisor Nehchal Sandhu said this week.

In a news release Monday, AdvanFort said the ship was involved in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean and was granted permission to enter the port "both to take on fuel and to escape the effects of Cyclone Phailin".

The statement quoted company president William Watson as thanking the Indian coast guard and police for allowing the ship to refuel. "We look forward to returning this vessel to its duties as quickly as formalities and resupply operations are concluded," he added.

But the Indian government apparently has a different view. Local media also reported that the ship was far from waters affected by last week's cyclone.

Peter Vrooman, a spokesman for the US Embassy, declined to comment. British Embassy spokesman Marcus Winsley said his government was in e-mail contact with the six Britons from the ship who had been detained. They have not yet been granted consular contact by the Indian government, Winsley said.

India abuts the Arabian Sea - which has seen a large number of attacks by Somali pirates in recent years - and is sensitive to violations of its territorial waters.

Reuters, McClatchy Tribune