A global anti-piracy task force deployed in the Arabian Sea to protect shipping lanes has engaged in invasive and violent searches and seizures of small Yemeni fishing vessels with apparent impunity, fishermen told Asia Times.

Multiple fishermen from Yemen’s southeastern province of Hadramout say international warships, most recently from the Indian navy, have targeted them in deep water and sometimes even in Yemen’s territorial waters. The perceived harassment has spread panic in fishing communities along the Yemeni coast, compelling many to shorten their voyages and others to abandon the profession entirely – some even taking up arms in the war.

In the Yemeni village of Qusayir, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden, fishermen are still reeling from a disturbing seizure that took place three months ago.

It seemed like a normal day when Hassan Brek and four other fishermen set off on their small boat, sailing into the Indian Ocean to look for fish. When they were almost 20 nautical miles from Qusayir, a warship sprang up on the horizon and began following them.

“We thought it was just cruising like other ships,” Brek, 36, told Asia Times. But the warship continued following them until the fishermen stopped to refuel, almost 50 nautical miles from their home village. The imposing vessel, labeled with the number F51, stopped near their boat, sounded a horn and dispatched two smaller crafts carrying several armed sailors.

“The sailors shinnied up our boat and shouted ‘Hindi or English!’ The other sailors on the ship and the boat were pointing guns at us,” Brek said.

“They signaled to us to use our Thuraya satellite phone to call other fishermen in the sea. When we told them we could not get through, they began beating us,” he said, standing alongside his boat on Qusayir’s picturesque sandy coast.

The fishermen said the sailors kicked and stomped on them with their boots, whipped them with ropes, and threatened to kill them if they did not call other fishermen.

“They were repeating one Arabic word, yaje, yaje [let them come],” Brek said as he recounted the horror at sea. The fishermen could not reach their colleagues despite calling them many times.

“We knew they were Indians from the small flags on their military uniforms.”

Brek said the sailor at one point tied his hands together with a rope and forced his head underwater until he was unable to breathe – only then letting him come up for air.

“They were laughing as they were torturing us,” the fisherman said.

Anti-piracy patrol

The vessel identification number and its description suggest it is the Russian-build INS Trikand frigate, which has been in service in the Indian navy since 2013.

A highly placed Indian naval official confirmed to Asia Times that the vessel is deployed in the region on an anti-piracy mission:

“We follow established SOPs (standard operating procedures) for keeping track of vessels that could be used by pirates. This is part of the international effort to deter any piracy and maintain the security of the sea lanes of communication.

“At times there could be some discomfort for the vessels that are intercepted since they have to suspend all activities while they are being inspected. However, they don’t last more than an hour and is quite rare. Our ship intercepts only when they sight vessels that don’t conform to the usual fishing vessels in the area or have equipment that is not required for standard fishing operations,” he said.

The inspections are used to rule out the presence of “piracy triggers,” he said, such as arms and ammunition, as well as grapnels and skiffs.

Salem Naseb, who was on the same small boat, said he was also beaten by Indian navy sailors. Their conduct, he said, was different than he had experienced when being confronted by similar European patrols.

“Western sailors such as French, Italians or Spanish never jump into boats before taking permission. They even give us food after checking our boat,” said Naseb, a fisherman in his fifties.

“We showed them sardines and fishing hooks” (in an attempt to prove their trade), Naseb said. But according to the orange-bearded fisherman, the sailors did not stop beating the Yemenis even when they found no arms on their boat.

Two hours later, another boat appeared on the horizon, bringing relief to the fishermen. The men said the Indians stopped hitting them when they saw the other boat coming.

Salem Naseb said Indian sailors threatened to kill him and his crew. Photo: Saeed Al Batati / Asia Times

It was another group of Yemeni fishermen. Thirty-year-old Ahmad Mahfouz, who was on board the second fishing boat, said he and his crewmembers were also subject to an invasive and violent search.

“When we got closer to the ship, the sailors stopped beating our friends and jumped into our boat and began doing the same thing with us,” said Mahfouz, a father of one.

As the only crew member who spoke a bit of English, he tried to explain that they were not pirates.

“I told them we had no guns and we were fishermen. They did not listen and continued beating us,” he said, adding that the sailors asked him to call other fishermen. “They told us, why didn’t you stop?”

After beating the fishermen and ransacking their boats, the Indians released the two boats. The fishermen quickly alerted their peers at sea, warning them to head back home or risk being intercepted by the same ship.

Terrified by the news, “some fishermen abandoned their catches and sailed back to the coast, staying home for several days,” said Naseb, who has been working in the fishing industry since childhood.

Emergency meeting

In Qusayir, heads of local fishery NGOs held an emergency meeting to help their embattled colleagues. They called local coastguard commanders, government officials, and launched an appeal on social media.

“We need protection from this F51 ship that has frequently threatened fishermen. It threatens to push fishermen to stop fishing,” Abu Baker Balajam, the head of Khaysa Fishery Association in Qusayir, told Asia Times.

Abu Baker Balajam, the head of the Khaysa Fishery Association in Qusayir, said fishermen need to be protected from attacks by the Indian navy and other international anti-piracy forces in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Saeed Al Batati for the Asia Times

The commander of Yemen’s coastguard in Hadramout in turn alerted the Combined Task Force 151 – an international anti-piracy coalition headquartered in Bahrain – about the incident. The response of the task force, Balajam was told, was that the Yemeni fishermen did not listen to the ship’s calls to stop.

“This is not true. The ship did not ask us to stop, but rather followed us from a distance until we stopped,” Naseb said.

For Yemen’s fishermen, new attacks by an international anti-piracy force is a bad omen, harkening back to deadly attacks that killed several fishermen a decade ago. According the Fishermen Cooperative Union in Hadramout, an umbrella organization for some 13,000 fishermen in the sprawling province, this violent interception was one of two reported in 2019, up from one in 2018.

In past years, the Russian, Ukrainian and Indian navies were also involved in reported attacks, according to the cooperative.

“We seek protection and compensation for those fishermen who were affected by those attacks,” Omer Gambet, the head of the union told Asia Times.

The plea of the fishermen comes amid a years-long conflict between the Saudi-backed government camp and Iran-allied rebels. A UN-commissioned study released in April assessed that even if the conflict were to end this year, already more than 230,000 Yemenis would have been killed – either as a direct result of the fighting or associated humanitarian crises.