Pirates are always dangerous, reckless and willing to do everything to escape when they are spotted, said Major General Nguyen Quang Dam, commander of the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG), often called marine police by Vietnamese people.
Marine policemen must be smart, determined and well prepared under all possible circumstances to minimize losses, Major General Dam said when recalling the situation when he ordered his subordinates to open fire while stopping the hijacked Zafirah tanker of Malaysia in late 2012.
After ordering the suspected MT Sea Horse vessel, flying the national flag of Honduras, to drop anchor to be inspected by the VCG for its inconsistent replies to Vietnamese authorities, the VCG predicted that it would flee at any time.
Later, the VCG discovered that the MT Sea Horse ship turned out to be the hijacked Zafirah, and the pirates had changed the name.
In the meantime, Major General Dam received news that the captain of the Zafirah, who had been thrown into the water with a lifebuoy, had been rescued by Vietnamese fishermen in the waters off the central province of Binh Thuan.
The Myanmarese captain named Sann Winnaung, 37, reported that his tanker had been hijacked by 11 men, who were likely Indonesians.
The man said he and eight other crew members were locked aboard the Zafirah for two days before being thrown overboard.
The pirates had guns, swords and knives, according to the captain.
Commander Dam ordered the captain and two crew members to be taken offshore for identification if the Zafirah had been renamed the MT Sea Horse.
At the same time, the VCG received confirmation from the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Organization based in Malaysia that it had found no cargo vessel named the MT Sea Horse of Honduras in its archives.
Two plans: opening fire and sending frogmen
At that time, a team of frogmen had already been seconded from the Cam Ranh Military Port, in the south-central province of Khanh Hoa, to Vung Tau City in the south to prepare for action.
Major General Dam recalled, “I was required to both settle the piracy case and ensure absolute safety for my staff.”
It was a difficult puzzle assigned by his seniors to ensure victory against pirates without any marine policemen getting injured, he added.
“After two days of keeping the suspected ship at anchor, we predicted that it would flee at any time.
“Then we would only have two choices: opening fire to kill the pirates, as other nations often do, or letting them run away.
“It is worth noting that opening fire may have caused 300 tons of light crude oil to spill all over the sea surface.
“The ship was just 70km from Vung Tau, and wind would blow fire toward the coast, where many ships were anchored and they would risk being burned. People living near the coast would probably be harmed, too.
“Serious pollution might also take place.”
Arriving at the scene, the captain of the Zafirah confirmed that the MT Sea Horse was the hijacked ship.
At the same time, the commander received a report that the pirates aboard the MT Sea Horse was about to cut anchor to escape. It was at 3:00 pm on November 22, 2012, and 15 Vietnamese frogmen had only left Vung Tau 10 minutes earlier.
“It was impossible to deploy frogmen because it was day light, although they could have been carried by helicopter.
“Frogmen are more effective in darkness and when the target is stable at the scene,” Commander Dam noted.
The last choice was left: besieging the target and opening fire. Letting it go would have meant the VCG failed the mission.
The General Staff forwarded an order to open fire.
The VCG suggested that the General Staff report the case to the embassies of Malaysia and Indonesia in Vietnam and told them about unexpected losses during the mission when the suspected tanker ran away.
On the scene, the engine of the suspected vessel started. One of the pirates rushed out to cut the anchor line. Another one reported via channel 16, the international communication channel between ships at sea, that, “We are about to leave Vietnamese waters immediately.”
Marine policemen at the scene were ordered to set fire to the rooftop of the bridge of the MT Sea Horse to force them to stop.
If the pirates replied with guns, the policemen were allowed to return fire.
(To be continued)