The hijacked MV Ruen in an image shared by the Indian Navy

The Indian Navy is tailing a merchant ship that was seized by unknown attackers in the Arabian Sea on Thursday and is now heading towards the Somali coast, with a P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and a front-line warship carefully monitoring its course, officials aware on the matter said on Saturday.

The European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) Operation Atalanta - the EU maritime security operation in the western Indian Ocean – has also swung into action to join the anti-piracy effort in the vast expanse, the officials said.

The Indian Navy was the first to locate and intercept the Maltese-flagged MV Ruen carrying 18 sailors, they added, asking not to be named.

“Responding swiftly to the developing situation, the Indian Navy diverted its maritime patrol aircraft undertaking surveillance in the area and its warship on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden to locate and assist MV Ruen,” navy spokesperson Commander Vivek Madhwal said.

The aircraft flew over the hijacked vessel early Friday morning and the warship intercepted it 24 hours later, Madhwal said in a statement.

“The Indian Navy’s mission deployed platforms responded swiftly to the hijacking incident in the Arabian Sea. The vessel, with 18 crew onboard, had sent a Mayday message on the UKMTO portal on December 14, indicating that it had been boarded by six unknown personnel. Aircraft have been continuously monitoring the movement of the vessel, which is now heading towards the coast of Somalia.”

Ruen relayed a distress call to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), the position reporting and emergency incident response interface with merchant ships at sea, on December 14, and the company managing the vessel reported that it believed the crew was no longer in control. At the time, Ruen was around 680 nautical miles east of Bosaso, the commercial capital of Somalia’s breakaway Puntland region, according to a UKMTO security notification.

The identity of the hijackers who have taken the crew hostage is unknown, but they are believed to be Somali pirates, the officials said.

The bulk carrier is managed by Bulgarian shipping company Navigation Maritime Bulgare (Navibulgar). Bulgarian authorities said Ruen’s crew are from Bulgaria, Angola and Myanmar.

The situation is being closely monitored in coordination with other agencies in the area, and the Indian Navy remains committed to being the first responder in the region and ensuring the safety of merchant shipping along with international partners and friendly foreign countries, the statement added.

EUNAVFOR said on Friday that Spanish frigate Victoria was “proceeding fast towards the alleged pirate-hijacked vessel to gain more awareness” and evaluate further actions in coordination with the Combined Maritime Forces, a Bahrain-headquartered 38-nation grouping that is focussed on counterterrorism, counter piracy and regional cooperation.

Victoria reached the area on Saturday evening and is operating alongside the Indian warship, the officials said.

The pirates boarded the merchant ship off the Yemeni island of Socotra. In a statement on Thursday, Navibulgar said Ruen was “the subject of a security incident 380 nautical miles east of the island of Socotra, Yemen.”

The Ruen incident has put piracy in the western Indian Ocean back in the spotlight. Pirate attacks in the region peaked between 2008 and 2013 but had steadily declined thereafter because of the concerted efforts of the multi-national maritime task force including the Indian Navy.

The region accounted for almost 700 pirate attacks during 2008-13, but the figure nosedived to a mere 16 during 2014-19, according to EUNAVFOR data. The December 14 incident was the first in the last three years. The EUNAVFOR figures cover all attacks mounted by suspected pirates including the ones repelled, aborted and those leading to ships landing in pirate hands and crews being taken hostage.

The Indian Navy has been deployed in the Gulf of Aden for more than 15 years.

At any given time, one Indian warship has been carrying out round-the-clock anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since October 23, 2008, to protect Indian sea-borne trade, instill confidence in the seafaring community, and act as a deterrent for pirates.

So far 107 Indian warships have been deployed in the Gulf of Aden - once considered the world’s most dangerous waters for commercial shipping - to ensure safe passage of Indian-flagged merchant vessels and they have thwarted scores of piracy attempts and safely escorted thousands of ships with tens of thousands of Indian sailors, the officials added.

In October, India and EU carried out their maiden naval exercise in the Gulf of Guinea off the west African coast to boost maritime security cooperation including fighting piracy. INS Sumedha, an offshore patrol vessel, was joined by Italian, Spanish and French warships for the drills.

The Indian Navy is also keeping a close eye on the Indian Ocean region under its mission-based deployment model which saw its warships clock 10,000 days at sea, aircraft log more than 15,000 flying hours and submarines more than 1,140 days during 2023.