Crew rescued after Indian Navy boards ship ambushed by pirates off Somalia

Guided missile destroyer INS Chennai intercepted MV Lila Norfolk after an attempted hijack

The Indian Navy sent guided missile destroyer INS Chennai to assist a cargo ship that was boarded by pirates off Somalia. AP
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Indian Navy commandos boarded a ship on Friday after it was ambushed by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

The navy identified the ship as the MV Lila Norfolk and said commandos from the INS Chennai had begun “sanitisation” of the vessel.

About two hours later, the Indian Navy said the “sanitisation” had been complete, and that no hijackers were found on board.

It said that all 21 of the crew, including 15 Indian citizens, were safe.

The INS Chennai remained close to the MV Lila Norfolk as engineers restored power to the ship, the Indian Navy said.

The INS Chennai, a guided missile destroyer and part of India's maritime force to protect shipping in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, was sent to the scene of the hijacking attempt, along with maritime patrol aircraft, the navy said on Friday.

It said its aircraft had been monitoring the ship's movements while the INS Chennai sailed towards it.

“The aircraft overflew the vessel on early morning of January 5, 2024, and established contact with the vessel, ascertaining the safety of the crew,” the navy said.

The crew of the Liberia-flagged MV Lila Norfolk notified the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations of the attack on Thursday.

The UKMTO said “five to six unauthorised armed persons have boarded a merchant vessel in the vicinity of Eyl”, a town on Somalia's coast.

“Crew are mustered in citadel,” it added, referring to the room on a ship dedicated for those on board to shelter in the event of an attack.

The vessel was destined for Khalifa bin Salman Port in Bahrain, according to British maritime security company Ambrey.

This incident took place during an increase in pirate attacks and an alleged deal between extremist Al Shabab group and Somali pirates in which the militant group will provide protection in exchange for a share of the ransom for captured ships.

The group has yet to officially confirm the agreement, but it has threatened an end to a lull in pirate attacks.

In December, pirates seized the Maltese-flagged MV Ruen and its 18 crew.

Andrew Mwangura, senior maritime adviser at Nautical Advisory Services, which deals with maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean, said the vessel was one of three hijacked in the last two months.

“A Liberian-flagged vessel was taken over by five to six gunmen while she was heading to Khalifa bin Salman port in Bahrain. She was taken some 460 nautical miles east of Eyl in Somalia. This brings to a total of three vessels taken by Somali gunmen in a span of two months as from November last year,” Mr Mwangura told The National from Mombasa, Kenya.

He confirmed that a ransom is being demanded by Somali pirates holding an Iranian fishing boat, Miiraj One, which was hijacked in November. He did not specify how the information was obtained.

Mr Mwangura said that Somali pirates are likely to go after more vessels if nothing is done to stop them because “they are more experienced, better equipped and better financed”.

“The gunmen were demanding a ransom of $400,000 from the crew and owners or else they threatened to use the Iranian fishing vessel as a mother ship to hunt for more ships,” he said.

The region has also experienced an escalation of tensions in the Red Sea, where Yemen-based Houthis have carried out attacks against commercial ships in retaliation for Israel’s military offensive against Gaza.

This prompted the US and its allies to increase their naval presence.

India in recent weeks had sent out three guided missile destroyers to maintain a deterrent presence and was using long-range P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft to patrol the waters off its western coast, after a chemical tanker was hit by a drone on December 24.

“The Indian Navy remains committed to ensuring the safety of merchant shipping in the region along with international partners and friendly foreign countries,” a naval official said.

Updated: January 06, 2024, 7:40 AM