Seaman Guard owner to fight arrest of ship's crew in India

Oct. 22, 2013 at 3:02 AM
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NEW DELHI, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- The owner of a ship detained by Indian authorities said he is taking his case to the courts to free the vessel's 35 crew members from arrest.

Indian police have been holding the Seaman Guard Ohio vessel in the western port of Tuticorin in the state of Tamil Nadu since Oct. 12.

Authorities are concerned its cargo of guns and ammunition aren't properly registered and the ship had taken on fuel illegally.

The owner, marine security firm AdvanFort International of Washington, responded Oct. 14 with a written statement thanking Indian authorities for allowing the ship to seek shelter during a storm off shore.

AdvanFort President William H. Watson wrote the company "wishes to thank and commend the Indian Coast Guard, port officials at Tuticorin and the Tamil Nadu police for allowing our vessel to enter the port both to take on fuel and to escape the effects of typhoon Phailin."

But police since have arrested all 35 crew -- Indians, Britons, Ukrainians and Estonians -- on the the Sierra-Leone-registered vessel, prompting Watson to say he will fight the detentions.

The Indian news service ibnLive said Watson called the arrests "inappropriate" and he will fight to free the crew.

"We believe the entire issue is inappropriate because we were asked to come into Indian territorial waters by the Indian coast guard, while we were outside the Indian territorial waters where we were operating," Watson said.

"So we are taking counsel. We are working diplomatically and through the judicial system to get these people released," Watson said. "The entire mission of our vessel is to safeguard commercial ships from piracy."

The BBC reported the ship's chief engineer attempted to commit suicide while jailed.

Police told the BBC the man tried to strangle himself with his shirt Monday but cellmates stopped him.

Reports also suggest he may have attempted to take his life last weekend, the BBC reported.

Piracy in the India Ocean has been a major problem for commercial shipping plying between India and the eastern African coast, particularly in the Arabian Sea, with many hijackings and crews being held for ransom.

Many shipping operators have hired armed guards to accompany their ships.

But the policy of using armed guards has been controversial, with fears of crew members being caught in deadly cross fire between hired security staff and pirates attempting to board a vessel.

A diplomatic row broke out between Italy and India last year when the Indian coast guard arrested two Italian marine security guards over the shooting deaths of two Indian fisherman.

The case, still in the Indian courts, concerns the incident off the Kerala state coast in February 2012 when the guards allegedly shot the fishermen under the belief the Indians were pirates.

Italy maintains the Indian fishing boat behaved aggressively toward the Enrica Lexie oil tanker and ignored warning shots from guards on the ship who became suspicious of the nearby fishing boat.

India's Supreme Court rejected Italy's argument that the incident happened in international waters where India doesn't have jurisdiction and that Italian nationals must be tried in Italy.

A civil case over the deaths was settled when each family of the dead fishermen accepted about $190,000 as compensation and for dropping the charges.

But Indian authorities are continuing with a criminal case against the marines -- Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone -- who are attending a special court in New Delhi.

This week The Times of India reported police are expected to visit Italy to question four Italian marines who witnessed the killing of the two Indian fishermen.

Italian authorities are refusing to send the marine witnesses to India for questioning.

Instead, Italian police will question the four marines in the presence of an Indian police team, The Times of India reported.

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