Coast Guard refutes claims that fishermen were armed

The Coast Guard on Friday said Italian tanker Enrica Lexie, which is detained at Kochi harbour pending investigation into the killing of two Indian fishermen by Italian marines on board, had committed a mistake.

“Firing on unarmed fishermen is incorrect…They were in India's Exclusive Economic Zone,” Inspector General S.P.S. Basra, Coast Guard Regional Commander (West), told the media here. Asked if the merchant ship, bound for Egypt from Singapore, had followed the stipulated rules of engagement of pirates before resorting to firing, he said: “They erred in their judgment.”

Mr. Basra also took strong exception to the crew's contention that the fishermen were armed.

Captained by Umberto Vitelli, Enrica Lexie has a crew of 24 of whom 19 are Indians. Besides, it carries six Italian Marines onboard for security.

Responding to a query on piracy in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Basra said: “Our waters are not piracy-infested. There had been instances of piracy over the last two years, but after the Navy and the Coast Guard intensified patrolling, there has not been a single incident [in the recent past]…Piracy-infested waters are off Somalia, not 20 miles from the Indian coast.”

The Coast Guard Regional Commander added that the agency frequently asked the International Maritime Bureau to intimate merchant vessels passing through the Indian Ocean to alert the Mumbai-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) if they came across any suspicious activity.

Mr. Basra said the Coast Guard had employed an ingenious ‘tactic' to divert the ship to Kochi. Alerted on a firing incident at sea by the police, the Coast Guard scrambled aerial and surface assets to look out for the vessel in question.

“We were still in the dark about the type of vessel that opened fire at the fishermen. However, the MRCC did a commendable job by picking up [from numerous blips on the radar] four ships within a radius of 40 to 60 nautical miles from the spot where the incident was reported to have occurred.”

As no merchant vessel had reported a pirate attack, the Coast Guard radioed these four ships, asking if they had been involved in a piracy incident. Only Enrica Lexie responded positively.

“Generally when something of this sort happens, merchant ships immediately alert the MRCC, which is the piracy reporting centre in the region. In this case, however, we did not receive any such report. They should have reported it. We got the information from them about two-and-a-half hours later…Once they confirmed their involvement in a ‘piracy incident,' we asked them to come to Kochi,” Mr. Basra said.

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