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Maahoara 3 Captain speaks out: "Indian military had their weapons pointed at us"

This is a translation of a Dhivehi feature written by Moosa Rasheed of Mihaaru News. He has written an account of events as relayed to him by the Captain of one of the fishing vessels that were boarded by Indian Coastguard officers.

04 February 2024, MVT 18:12
Screengrab from footage that was released on social media showing the moment when the Indian Coastguard approached one of the fishing vessels.
04 February 2024, MVT 18:12

"They had their guns pointed straight at us. Close enough to touch us with the tips of them. I said we are cooperating, aren't we? They made us feel like criminals in our own seas. They were intimidating us."

Captain Ibrahim Rasheed of Maahoara 3, one of the Maldivian fishing vessels which Indian Coastguard boarded and conducted an operation on on January 31 while it was within the Maldives' Exclusive Economic Zone, said these words when speaking to Mihaaru News about the day's events and his experiences.

An Indian Coastguard vessel is first reported to have boarded the local fishing vessels in Maldivian ocean territory on the afternoon of January 31.

The officers approached the boats in small crafts, armed and in military uniform.

On that day, they boarded and searched three vessels, interrogated crew and fishermen on board the vessels, and left the area before the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF)'s Coastguard reached the location.

Maahoara 3's Captain Ibrahim said that an Indian vessel once again came at them the next night around 23:30 hrs, once again still well within the Maldives EEZ.

At the time, there were 11 crew members on board; five from Maldives, three from Bangladesh, and three from Minicoy Island.

The Captain said he couldn't believe his ears when crew members approached him as he was sleeping and said "an Indian boat is approaching". He said this was because their vessel was already very close to inhabited islands, so close as to receive perfect cellular coverage range, in fact.

The Indian military did a thorough search of the vessel, although it remains unclear what they were looking for, They asked the Captain for the vessel's route and satellite number.

"The men on the boat came again and called to me, saying they (the Indian vessel) keeps shining high beam lights on us. [They asked] what should we do? So I got up and went to see what was going on. And I saw a large Indian vessel near us and signaling at us," he recalled.

According to the captain, their fishing vessel was about 17 nautical miles away from Haa Alif Atoll Kelaa island at this point, and about 20 nautical miles away from Molhadhoo island. He said that had it been daytime, the islands would have been clearly visible to the naked eye.

When the fishing vessel decided to not stop and wait, some military personnel from the Indian vessel got into a small speedboat and proceeded to circle around them, the Captain said.

Finally, the fishermen slowed down their boat. Immediately, about 20 Indian officers on the speed boat boarded the vessel and ordered the entire crew to move to the stern of the boat and to remain together there, the Captain recounted.

One of the guards aboard the Maldivian fishing vessel. Despite reports that the officers had attempted to destroy photographic/video evidence, some footage was shared on social media later.

"I told them they did not have the authority to be in that location. [MNDF] Coastguard had instructed us to not cooperate with them. That we will cooperate only after they explain their justification for boarding the boat," Rasheed claimed.

According to him, the Indian Officers initially claimed that they had come to the location after receiving reports of a sinking vessel from some Maldivians.

"I responded that it would have been evident to them that our vessel was not sinking when they were circling us in their speedboat. They were lying to our face."

The Captain said that the Indians then changed the story. Now they began to claim that they had intel about a 'drug boat' operating in the location, and that they were conducting their operations with the permission of the Maldivian Coastguard.

"They asked us to call the Coastguard right that very moment. To call and ask them. But every time we tried to call the Coastguard, the call kept getting disconnected. We were within cell tower range at the time though. And yet, we could not call the Coastguard," he said.

The Indian Coastguard lined up all the crew members at the stern of the boat, with officers standing guard over them.

Describing the situation on the boat, the Captain said the crew had been confined to the stern of the boat, with some officers stationed with them to ensure they remained there. The officers stood at such a close distance that the guns were literally touching the crew, and ignored repeated pleas to move the guns away.

"The boat was swaying violently in the waves. Because they had the guns pointed right at us, we were terrified that we may be hit by a bullet any moment, even if not deliberately shot. The people with us were trembling in fear," the Captain described events.

"We asked them to stay without pointing the barrels of the guns at us. That we will cooperate and abide by what they say. Even when we repeated it three, four times, the only response from the Indian military was that that is how they stay whenever they board a vessel."

Captain Ibrahim said that Indian officers conducted a thorough search of the vessel, looking into compartments, handling expensive equipment on board. Furthermore, they asked for the route the vessel had travelled, and also for the number of the satellite phone.

"Even when they took me up to check the route, I had two officers - one in front, one behind - both pointing guns at me. Once again, I requested them to move away the guns and was told that I was 'locked'", he said.

One of the main Indian Coastguard vessels that the officers came in.

As per the captain, the Indian officers finally left the vessel after having been on it for approximately two hours. Before leaving, they ordered the Captain to sign a document.

When the Captain proceeded to enquire what the document was and about its contents, he was told that it was a document confirming that no damage had been caused.

"I told them the only way I would sign it is if they would let me take a photo of the document. They agreed, but immediately took it and left as soon as I signed it. They gave me no opportunity to take a photo. They said their ship had not granted them permission to let us take a photo."

A little while after the Indian coastguard departed, the Captain said he was finally able to get through to the MNDF Coastguard. He said that once the MNDF Coastguard were given details of the events, they explained to him that the Indians may have used signal jammers to block the crew from making calls.

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