Concerned over rising instances of piracy off the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden, India is readying an initial 100-man team to protect its merchant vessels in the area. This is the first time armed personnel will be deployed aboard cargo ships.
The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) will take on the responsibility of securing the merchant vessels, under a proposal mooted by the ministry of shipping and, as a pilot project, will train 100 of its personnel for the purpose, a government source told IANS.
"CISF will train 100 of its special commandos who will man Indian merchant ships and protect them against pirate attacks at sea," the source said.
"The modalities are being worked out. The training is likely to be conducted in coordination with the Indian Navy's marine commandos (MARICOS)," the source, who wished not to be identified, told IANS.
The CISF personnel will also be equipped with special weapons as their standard issue, 5.56mm rifles and pistols, will not be adequate for the specialised task. Citing security concerns, the source declined to give details.
The move comes in the wake of heightened pirate attacks on merchant ships off the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden, resulting in both the vessels and the sailors ending up as hostages of the sea brigands to extract ransom from the ship-owners.
Currently, Indian Navy ships, among those from other nations, are deployed on escort duties for all vessels in the Gulf of Aden region but it has been felt that specific steps needed to be taken to ensure the security of Indian vessels.
Shipping minister GK Vasan had recently made known to parliament the proposal to deploy armed guards on board merchant ships.
The idea of having armed guards on board cargo ships was mooted internationally a couple of years ago in view of the vulnerability of these vessels while sailing through pirate-infested waters.
Several cargo ships were captured by the Somali pirates in recent years and the incidents have witnessed a spurt since 2008.
In 2012, there have been 210 worldwide piracy-related incidents, of which 23 were hijackings, according to London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) figures.
Of these, 70 incidents were reported off the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden. The Somali pirates were successful in hijacking 13 vessels and taking 212 sailors hostage. At present, Somali pirates are holding 11 vessels and 188 sailors hostage, according to IMB.
However, the practice of having armed guards on board cargo ships has its flip side too.
Earlier this year, Italian marines on board a cargo vessel shot dead two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast, mistaking them to be pirates. The two marines are being tried by a court in Kerala.
Until recently, it was illegal to carry arms or armed personnel on board cargo ships, but these rules are now being relaxed internationally. India is yet to formally provide any legal backing to allow arms and armed guards on board cargo ships flying the Indian flag.
The CISF is nonetheless going ahead with its pilot project, the source said.
Initially, the CISF intends to post five personnel, including an officer, on board a cargo vessel.
The CISF is already responsible for guarding 14 major seaports in the country, including Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Kolkata, Haldia, Paradip, Visakhapatnam, Ennore, Chennai, Kochi, Tuticorin, Mangalore, Goa and Kandla.
CISF spokesperson Hemendra Singh told IANS that 6,900 personnel are deployed at these ports across the country under an international seaport security code that ensures worldwide uniformity and standardisation of security drills at seaports.