MUMBAI, March 15 (UPI) -- The Indian navy captured 61 suspected pirates and freed kidnapped crew members after a gun battle aboard a hijacked fishing trawler in the Arabian Sea.
The 78-foot ship Vega 5, owned by Mozambican company Efripel, was hijacked by the Somali pirates Dec. 28 and was being used as a mother vessel from which to attack and capture other ships.
The rescue operation began when navy personnel reported a distress call from the motor vessel Vancouver Bridge that it was under pirate attack Friday. A naval Dornier maritime reconnaissance aircraft located Vega 5 around 700 miles off the southern Indian coastal city of Kochi.
The navy's corvettes Khukri and Kalpeni closed in during the night. Pirates opened fire but the Vega 5 caught fire and many pirates jumped into the sea. Other pirates launched small skiffs to attack the Indian vessels or tried to flee, a navy statement said.
The navy captured 61 alleged pirates and freed 13 crew members who had been held hostage. It was the navy's most successful anti-pirate operation. The Vega 5 was a "risk to international shipping for the last four months, having carried out several attacks," the navy statement said.
Up to 90 small arms and several heavier weapons were captured, including rocket-propelled grenades, were found on the Vega 5.
The navy said the vessel suffered extensive fire damage, not uncommon when gun battles occur. Many pirated vessels have extra fuel drums on board to allow a ship extended time at sea and also to fuel the skiffs used to attack and capture other vessels.
The pirates, believed to be from either Somalia or Yemen, have been handed to police in Mumbai and likely will be prosecuted in an Indian court.
Asian countries are becoming more assertive in their pursuit of pirates on the high seas, as well as in the courts back home.
In November 2008, an Indian navy ship destroyed a suspected Somali pirate vessel after it came under attack in the Gulf of Aden. The Tabar sank the suspected pirated mother ship after it failed to stop for investigation.
Earlier this year the Indian navy captured two pirate mother ships and the 43 suspected pirates are awaiting legal proceedings in India.
Reports in the Indian press said the Somali government requested that the 43 pirates be sent to Somalia for prosecution. But so far few countries holding suspected pirates are willing to do so for fear that the suspects won't be tried or will be set free.
In Malaysia four suspected Somali pirates could face the death penalty if convicted by a court of armed robbery and firing weapons at Malaysian defense forces.
The four are among seven people who were formally charged after the navy arrested them during a gun battle on board a hijacked chemical tanker Jan. 20. The other three suspected pirates, aged around 15 years, won't face death sentences because of their age.
In South Korea, five alleged Somali pirates face attempted murder and maritime robbery charges. They were captured in a South Korean naval commando raid Jan. 21 to rescue the Jewelry, an 11,500-ton chemical carrier.
During the operation, eight of the 13 suspected pirates on the Jewelry were killed. The ship's crew of 21 was safe, although the captain was shot in the stomach, but lived.
Despite successes by India, Malaysia and other countries in capturing pirates, the forced boarding of pirated ships is controversial. Although International Maritime Bureau welcomed recent successful rescue operations, it cautioned against such assaults.
"We recognize the risks posed to crew in actions of this type and advise that navies only give the orders after consultation with a vessel's owners and flag state," IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan said in January.
Last year there were 445 recorded pirate attacks, a 10 percent increase on 2009, the IMB's Piracy Reporting Center, which has headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said.
Pirates took 1,181 hostages, the highest number since the IMB began started monitoring the area around the Gulf of Aden in 1991.