NEW DELHI, India -- An Indian navy rescue vessel called off efforts today to remove 31 sailors from a grounded freighter that was threated by spear-carrying natives from the former 'Devil's Island' of the storm-tossed Bay of Bengal.
High seas and strong winds forced the Indian ship to abandon the rescue, but a spokesman for India's armed services said the crew of the 16,000-ton Primrose 'is absolutely safe,' and would be lifted by helicopter when the weather cleared.
'We are in constant contact with the crew,' the spokesman, Col. Prithvi Nath, said. 'They are OK and have plenty of food and water.'
The rescue vessel sped more than 600 miles from Calcutta into the monsoon-swept Bay of Bengal in answer to an SOS from the captain of the Primrose, which struck a coral reef 10 days ago and went aground off the Indian-ruled Andaman Islands.
'Our ship is alongside it and has attempted to transfer its crew to our vessel, but was unable to because of bad weather,' Nath said earlier today.
The Primrose was traveling from Bangladesh to Australia when it grounded on the coral reef off North Sentinel Island in the Andaman chain, which is made up of five large islands and the smaller islets.
The islands, about 600 miles southeast of Calcutta, are inhabited by aborigines and former convicts of a penal colony that was located at Port Blair, the administrative center of the island chain. North Sentinel Island is west of Port Blair.
First word of the drama surfaced Tuesday, when a desperate cable was received by the Regent Shipping Co. in Hong Kong from the ship's captain, Liu Chunglong, saying the crew was threatened by 'wild island people carrying spears and arrows.'
The captain asked for an urgent airdrop of weapons, saying the crewmen, 21 of whom are Hong Kong Chinese, feared the natives might try to board the stricken freighter using canoes.
Nath described the Sentinelese as 'very primitive' and said they number about 100.
'Those natives are not used to outsiders,' he said. 'They are not used to civilized people.'