TUTICORIN (TIP): In an early morning operation, all the 35 members on board the US ship Seaman Guard Ohio, a floating armoury, were arrested by sleuths of Tamil Nadu’s Q branch, a state intelligence wing, on October 18 . A team of officials led by Q branch SP Bhavaneeswari and Tuticorin SP M Durai entered the vessel, docked in the V O Chidambaranar port since October 12, and arrested the ten crew members and 25 security guards. Thirty three of the men were taken to Muthayapuram police station in Tuticorin where they were interrogated while two of the arrested were left on board the ship to carry out maintenance work. As many as 31 assault rifles and more than 5000 rounds of ammunition in the ship were confiscated. The passports of the arrested men as well as one of their agents in Tuticorin were also confiscated. Sources in Q branch said measures were being taken to produce the arrested before a court and remand them. The arrest of the ten crew members and 25 security guards on the ship comes six days after the vessel was detained off Tuticorin coast by the Indian Coast Guard.
The ship had strayed into Indian territorial waters off the Kanyakumari coast and later towed to the Tuticorin port. The crew comprise of two Ukrainians and eight Indians while the security guards included six British, 14 Estonians, one Ukrainian and four Indians. The men had been booked under two sections of the Indian Arms Act that prohibits possession of weapons without permission. A case under Passport Act and Essential Commodities Act was also registered for procuring fuel in Indian waters in an unauthorized manner. The vessel, owned by a US-based firm AdvanFort, a company that provides maritime security services to protect ships from pirate attacks, was registered in the West African country of Sierre Leone. The Indian Coast Guard intercepted the ship on suspicion. A preliminary inquiry by the Coast Guard revealed that the vessel was illegally carrying weapons. The crew must have obtained permission to possess weapons from the Indian authorities when they enter the exclusive economic zone of the country, said a coastal security group officer when the vessel was detained. After initial probe by the Tamil Nadu Coastal Security Group the case was transferred to the Q branch. However, several agencies including the Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau too interrogated the crew. Sources said the men were reluctant to cooperate with the investigation and failed to produce proper documents for possession of the weapons. Meanwhile, the state government is preparing a detailed report on the episode to be sent to the Centre.