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    Posted on 21 February 2012
    Sushil Bhan

    These killers are not guilty

    Sushil Bhan on why the Enrica Lexie firing was an accident, not manslaughter

    Illustration: Tanmaya Tyagi

    SOMALI PIRATES, as per the International Chamber of Commerce, took 361 sailors hostage and kidnapped 13 in the first six months of 2011. Globally, 495 seafarers were taken hostage. Pirates killed seven people and injured 39. About 100 vessels were boarded, 76 fired upon and 62 attacks were thwarted. Undoubtedly, MV Enrica Lexie guards acted prematurely. They mistook innocent fishermen for pirates and over-reacted by opening fire. The crew of the Italian ship must be feeling guilty about the incident. In the stress posed by the moment, their armed guards had made a gruesome error. The remorse on the Enrica Lexie is equal to the pain that the bereaved families of fishermen must feel.

    People who operate ships in the ocean are capable of understanding their civic duty. Had this not been the case, the ship’s captain might have not felt obligated to return to Kochi to face enquiry. The captain of the Enrica Lexie must be commended for displaying the respect for Indian law. Had the captain any intention of acting in an unlawful manner, it would have been many days before anybody could have found out about the incident. The ship was in international waters and it could have easily proceeded on towards the Suez Canal but it returned. The incident might be given a political angle, which would be wrong.

    The piracy risk to ships transiting the Arabian Sea is grotesquely high. Navigating any ship, leave alone a tanker like the Enrica Lexie through the infested waters, is like asking for your ship an imminent hijacking. For the most ordinary pirate-outfit, mounting Enrica Lexie at its top speed of 26 kilometres per hour would be a simple mission. The boats that pirates use easily go twice as fast, which is not a big deal because leisure boat can out run the fastest tanker. With the advantage of speed, all that a pirate needs to do was to come up behind the Italian ship and throw a grapple hook on to the ships railing. And once this is achieved, the ship could do nothing to prevent pirates from boarding. What happens next is not a secret. There is nothing anyone can do to prevent such incidents.

    There is a reason why the guards would not have allowed the suspicious boat to come near their vessel. The Italian ship looks empty in the pictures aired on TV channels. This means Enrica’s tanks are ripe with inflammable vapour. An empty tanker is a moving bomb. A laden oil tanker is, in fact, relatively safer. This is because inflammable vapour lights up instantly. The crew must have known if their ship comes within the pirates RPG range, it would present itself as a large target that even a blind gunner could not miss. Even if the pirates are deterred to board a tanker, what is the guarantee they won’t lunge a grenade once they come in close range. To predict that the crew on the Enrica Lexie was on an edge is not difficult. Thus, blaming the crew for the incident is not fair as the consequence would have been deadly if the victims had been the pirates.

    At 26 kmph speed, the ship would take five days and nights to cross the treacherous stretch of pirate prone Arabian sea. To stand guard against an imminent attack over such an extended period is extremely nerve wracking. The surveillance load on the crew is quite high. Do they have a limitless work force onboard? Well, ships of Enrica’s size don’t have more than ten men available for vigil and these are unarmed crew and they must stand 24x7 guard for 120 hours. Pitted against the fear that pirates with rocket launchers and machine guns could attack them anytime, these guys are exhausted beyond their wits. The story of the armed guards is worse because they are a much smaller contingent. Five days of standing guard is bound to make them extremely edgy. It is in charged unrelenting situations like these when mistakes happen. The Enrica Lexie incident is the newest example. Had it been a real threat these guys would have been hailed as heroes.

    TO RESOLVE the Arabian sea piracy issue, governments of the world will need to send out task forces to raid the places where the pirates hold ships after hijacking them. It makes no sense to patrol the 1.5 million square miles of ocean as it is currently done. It is said that satellites can read markings of golf balls. If it is true the world governments must bring their best surveillance gear to track the coastal movements of pirates and small craft. The pirates seem to have found the space to evolve pretty solid organisations. The pirates are after all making contact with ship owners and collecting ransoms. While the pirates may soon start accepting credit card payments, the world governments have moved very slowly to try and address the problem.

    The stake for the world is tremendous. At least 20,000 ships every year need to traverse the Arabian Sea to connect Europe and Asia. Ships are the work horses of the global economy and to leave them vulnerable to piracy is deplorable. It is akin to the governments not responding to famines and catastrophes. The threat of piracy to shipping is has yet not been recognised as a big enough global issue. This attitude is wrong. The preservation of world maritime fleets is crucial. It is not just a third of the world gdp that ships carry every year. It is the global maritime supply chain that keeps half the world dying from hunger and another half dying from cold. Maritime trade is crucial to the world. The United Nations has enough diplomats and power to prevent piracy in the water.

    What happened on the Enrica Lexie was an accident? The lives of the fishermen must be compensated graciously without turning the incidence into a political show. The threat from maritime piracy must be dealt with at the earliest. As a nation, we must lead the world to address it.

    Sushil Bhan, a strategy and technical operations veteran of 25 years, is an FW Oped columnist.
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 21 February 2012



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