After pirates aboard the Zafirah tanker resisted the orders of the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) by cutting anchor to flee, law enforcement forces decided to return with a firm reply by opening fire.
The pirates sped up the tanker to escape Vietnamese waters after dropping anchor for two days. The ship was just 70km off Vung Tau, a beach resort of the southern Vietnamese province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau.
Colonel Le Xuan Thanh, head of the VCG of Zone 3 in charge of the East Vietnam Sea waters from the south-central province of Binh Dinh to Tra Vinh Province in the Mekong Delta, ordered a burst of AK rifle fire to warn the pirates.
Captain Le Hai Truong of VCG ship 4031 warned on a speaker, “Here is the announcement of the Vietnam Coast Guard. The nine crew members of Zafirah you threw into the water were safely rescued. You will be safe if you surrender, otherwise you will be killed.”
However, the vessel continued to pick up speed.
Two VCG ships, CSB 4031 and 4034, sped up to 56kph to block it. The marine police ships were both running to besiege the Zafirah and call on the pirates to surrender.
Coast guards are normally called marine police officers in Vietnam.
The police ships began firing water cannons at the bridge of the Zafirah. The ship continued on when they stopped using the water cannons.
The VCG tried to contact the hijacked ship via channel 16, the international communication channel between ships at sea, but the pirates on board remained silent.
On the mainland, Lieutenant General Tran Quang Khue, head of the Vietnamese marine police department, gave an order to his subordinates to continue shooting to threaten the pirates.
The pirates were panicked by the gunfire of 12.7mm machine guns and AK rifles, even though the policemen only fired into the air. They gathered inside the control tower on top of the Zafirah to seek safety.
After 15 minutes, contact via channel 16 was rejected. Col. Thanh then ordered a direct shot at the control tower.
The pirates stopped speeding away.
Col. Thanh recalled that he was aware of the possibility of the light crude oil on board exploding, and ordered his men to precisely target the top of the tanker to intimidate the hijackers and force them to stop.
The Vietnamese marine police officers were also required to maintain a safe distance from the Zafirah to prevent casualties.
Nguyen Quang Dam (L), commander of the Vietnam Coast Guard. Photo: Tuoi Tre
After the first burst of gunfire at the control tower, the Zafirah reduced its speed and stopped, but the pirates were uncooperative and refused to leave the tower.
Captain Truong spoke through a loudspeaker to urge the pirates to move to the prow and surrender to avoid death.
The pirates were reluctant, he recalled.
Five police ships then resumed shooting with 12.7mm machine guns and AK rifles. The pirates began crawling out of the control tower to the prow to surrender.
Only 11 pirates were at the prow, while the VCG had been informed of 12 pirates.
Fearing that the last one was hiding to commit suicide with the ship, Captain Truong threatened to shoot four pirates at the prow after each burst of gunfire if the twelfth one refused to appear.
When the guns started opening fire – into the air actually – they cried and shouted loudly they had only 11.
Captain Truong asked to launch five motor boats and ordered the pirates to jump into the water, one by one.
Within 50 minutes since the first burst of gunfire directed at the control tower, all 11 pirates were tied up and locked inside two rooms on the CSB 4034.
No one was hurt during the mission.
The CSB 4034 ship carrying the pirates sped toward the coast while the other ships monitored the target to make sure it was not rigged with timed mines.
All the arrested pirates were given a bath and new clothes and were under the permanent watch of Vietnamese marine police officers. They were taken to the mainland for inquiries after 90 minutes aboard the CSB 4034.
“I asked the Ministry of National Defense to keep the Zafirah at its site offshore for mine detection under the watch of two ships, CSB 4031 and CSB 9001,” recalled Major General Nguyen Quang Dam, commander of the VCG.
A task force was dispatched to the ship, but they discovered no explosives.
The following morning, the captain and crew members of the Zafirah were allowed to return to the tanker, also under the watch of Vietnamese marine policemen.
They were also given food and fresh vegetables. Policemen helped them repair some utilities before the Zafirah was tugged to a port in Vung Tau.
International marine police forces sent congratulations to Vietnam right after the Zafirah was stopped offshore, Major General Dam said.
This marked the first time the VCG had to open fire to subdue sea pirates, and no one was hurt.
On April 13 in 2013, or four and a half months after the incident, all 11 pirates were escorted to Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City to be handed over to Indonesian authorities.
(To be continued)