Indian Navy intercepts merchant vessel after attempted hijacking; rescues 21 crew members

MV Lila Norfolk, a cargo ship, which was hijacked near Somalia's coast in the Arabian Sea. INS Chennai of the Indian Navy closely followed the hijacked ship and rescued all 21 crew, including 15 Indians, onboard. Photo: PTI

New Delhi: Indian Navy's elite marine commandos on Friday rescued 21 crew members including 15 Indians from a bulk carrier in the North Arabian Sea and sanitised it in a swift operation while responding to attempted hijacking of the Liberian-flagged vessel by around five-six armed personnel.

The Navy deployed a warship, maritime patrol aircraft, helicopters and P-8I and long-range aircraft and Predator MQ9B drones following the incident involving MV Lila Norfolk.

"All 21 crew including 15 Indians onboard the vessel were safely evacuated from the citadel," Indian Navy's spokesperson Commander Vivek Madhwal said.

"Sanitisation by MARCOs commandos has confirmed the absence of the hijackers. The attempt of hijacking by the pirates was probably abandoned with the forceful warning by Indian Navy's maritime patrol aircraft of interception by naval warship," he said.

Madhwal said Indian ship INS Chennai is in the vicinity of MV Lila Norfolk and it is rendering support to restore the power generation and propulsion in the vessel besides assisting her commence voyage to next port of call.

Earlier in the day, the Navy diverted frontline warship INS Chennai from her anti piracy patrol and it intercepted the hijacked vessel at 3:15 pm.

The vessel was kept under continuous surveillance using maritime patrol aircraft P8I and Predator MQ9B drones.

"The Indian Navy's marine commandos present onboard the mission deployed warship boarded the merchant vessel and have carried out the sanitisation operation," Madhwal said.

MV Lila Norfolk sent a message on the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) portal indicating that five to six unknown armed personnel boarded the vessel on Thursday evening.

Earlier, the Navy said the overall situation is being "closely monitored" in coordination with other maritime agencies in the region.

The hijacking incident comes amid growing concerns over Houthi militants stepping up attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The Navy had earlier said it was responding swiftly to the "developing situation" and deployed a maritime patrol aircraft and diverted INS Chennai for security of MV Lila Norfolk.

"Responding swiftly to the developing situation, Indian Navy launched a maritime patrol aircraft and has diverted INS Chennai deployed for maritime security operations to assist the vessel," it said in a statement.

"The aircraft overflew the vessel early Friday morning and established contact with the vessel, ascertaining the safety of the crew," it said "The Indian Navy remains committed to ensuring safety of merchant shipping in the region along with international partners and friendly foreign countries," the Navy said.

The UKMTO is a British military organisation that tracks movements of various vessels in strategic waterways.

The cargo vessel belonged to Lila Global and the company's CEO Steve Kunzer said the crew of Lila Norfolk have been successfully rescued by the Indian Navy ship INS Chennai.

"The vessel and crew are all safe. We want to thank the Agencies that assisted in their rescue, in particular the Indian Navy, Capt Rohit Bajpai, Director IFC-IOR and the officials of DG Shipping," he said in a statement.

"We also want to thank the professionalism of our crew who reacted safely and responsibly under the circumstances," he said.

The Indian Navy's IFC IOR (Information Fusion Centre '? Indian Ocean Region) keeps track of the shipping traffic as well as other critical developments in the region.

The fresh incident is among a series of such maritime incidents witnessed in the strategic waters in the last few weeks.

Liberian-flagged vessel MV Chem Pluto, with 21 Indian crew members, was the target of a drone attack off India's west coast on December 23.

Besides MV Chem Pluto, another commercial oil tanker that was on the way to India came under a suspected drone strike in the Southern Red Sea on the same day. The vessel had a team of 25 Indian crew. In another incident, Malta-flagged vessel MV Ruen was hijacked on December 14 by pirates.

The Indian Navy on Wednesday said it continues to monitor the maritime security situation in the North and Central Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden.

"Indian Naval ships and aircraft remain mission deployed for maintaining enhanced surveillance and undertaking maritime security operations," it said.

"In the last one week, Indian Naval Task Groups deployed in the area have investigated large number of fishing vessels and boarded vessels of interest," it added. The task groups comprised warships, surveillance planes and remotely-piloted aircraft.

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