Navies of India and China on Sunday rescued a merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden after it was hijacked by Somali pirates, in a well-coordinated operation which came in the midst of strain in ties between the two countries over a range of sticky issues.
After getting a distress call about the attack by pirates on the cargo vessel OS 35 on Saturday night with 19 Filipino crew members, the Indian Navy sent its two frontline warships, INS Mumbai and INS Tarkash, while the Chinese Navy also moved in its missile frigate Yulin.
The two Indian ships were in the region as part of an overseas deployment.
The merchant ship was travelling from Kelang in Malaysia to port city of Aden in Yemen and following the attack, the crew had locked themselves in the 'citadel', a safe room inside the vessel, according to the Indian Navy.
While the Indian Navy deployed a helicopter that provided air cover, the Chinese side sent in a team of 18 personnel to sanitise the 178-metre-long merchant ship registered in Pacific island of Tuvalu.
At the end of the operation, the Chinese Navy thanked Indian navy for its role in successful operation. The Indian Navy also returned compliment to their Chinese counterparts.
"In a show of international maritime cooperation against piracy, a boarding party from the nearby Chinese Navy ship went on board the merchant ship, while the Indian Naval helicopter provided air cover for the operation. It has been established that all 19 Filipino crew members are safe," Navy spokesperson Capt D K Sharma said.
The well-coordinated operation by navies of India and China comes amid strain in ties between the two Asian giants over a range of issues including the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, China's opposition to India's Nuclear Suppliers Group membership and Beijing blocking India's effort to declared Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as global terrorist by the United Nations.
The Indian Navy had swung into action after getting a call from Dubai office of the United Kingdom's Maritime Trade Organisation which acts as the primary point of contact for merchant vessels and liaison with military forces in the region.
Pakistani and Italian warships had also responded to calls for help and reached the spot.
The Indian warships established contact with the Captain of the merchant vessel, who along with the crew had locked themselves in a strong room on board as per standard operating procedure.
An Indian Navy helicopter undertook aerial reconnaissance of the merchant vessel at night, and at sunrise, to sanitise the upper decks of the merchant ship and ascertain the location of pirates, if still on board.
The pirates had fled from the ship after warships of India and China moved in.
"Indian Navy's helicopter cover, and on receiving the 'all clear signal' that no pirates were visible on the upper decks, some crew members gradually emerged from the strong room and carried out a search of the ship and ascertained that the pirates had fled the ship at night," said the navy spokesperson.
The operation to rescue the ship and free those on board was accomplished at dawn on Sunday.
The Captain of the merchant vessel profusely thanked the Indian Naval ships for their response and for providing air cover, said Sharma.
The European Union Naval Force said it is working with "counter-piracy partners" to investigate the incident.