22 arrested sailors of armed US ship shifted to Chennai

Chennai, Oct 23 (IANS) The Tamil Nadu prisons department Wednesday morning shifted to Puzhal prison here 22 of the 35 arrested from the American armed ship, Seaman Guard Ohio, under Sierra Leone's flag, a prison official said.

The ship is owned by a closely held American company AdvanFort.

The sailors were lodged in Palayamkottai Central Jail in Tirunelvelli district, around 650 km from here.

"All the 22 sailors shifted to Puzhal prison are foreigners. The police want to take three sailors under their custody for inquiries. The Indian sailors numbering 12 (eight crew and four security guards) will continue to be here," a Palayamkottai prison official told IANS over phone.

According to police, the three members of the ship - one foreigner and two Indians - need to be questioned about the possibility of arms transfer mid-sea.

The ship had bought around 1,500 litres of diesel illegally. The police have already arrested five persons for supplying diesel illegally.

Flying under West African country Sierra Leone's flag, the Seaman Guard Ohio was in Indian waters Oct 11 night, around 15 nautical miles from Tuticorin port.

The Coast Guard escorted the ship with 35 people (10 crew and 25 security guards) to Tuticorin port Oct 12.

Officials from different security departments questioned the ship's personnel as automatic rifles, bullets and other arms were found on board the vessel.

According to a marine police official, the security guards on the ship maintained that the arms were for providing security to ships and they were waiting for further orders.

A marine police official told IANS earlier that the crew members are giving contradictory statements. Also, the papers presented by them do not support their oral version.

According to the Coast Guard, eight of the crew members are Indians and two Ukrainians.

On Oct 18, Tamil Nadu Police formally arrested 33 crew members and security personnel of the Seaman Guard Ohio, and a court sent all of them to 14 days' judicial custody.

Police also seized 35 weapons and 5,680 rounds of ammunition from the vessel.

Two crew members were left on the vessel for its upkeep and maintenance till AdvanFort made alternate arrangements. However, they too were arrested and sent to judicial custody Oct 19.

Of the 25 security guards who have been arrested, six are British, 14 Estonians, one Ukrainian and four Indians.

According to a website that tracks marine traffic, the last known port of call for Seaman Guard Ohio was Sharjah.

The ship's owner, AdvanFort, which specialises in providing maritime security against pirates, claimed the ship entered Indian waters to escape the fury of Cyclone Phailin.

However, the cyclone-hit Odisha and Andhra Pradesh are far off from Tuticorin where the ship was detected. It is also not known what the ship was doing in the Bay of Bengal instead of the Indian Ocean.

A police official told IANS the ship was loitering around India for the past one month for reasons not known.

The police official also wondered why did the ship buy 1,500 litres of diesel illegally instead of fuelling at Sharjah, or through legal channels at any of the Indian ports.

Curiously, emails sent to AdvanFort by IANS Oct 21 with a list of questions as to the need for diesel, why it was not fuelled at its last port of call, lack of papers for the arms on board, and other issues bounced back.

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