(AP) — Armed private guards aboard a famous yacht once owned by the late Welsh actor Richard Burton fired on approaching ships on Friday in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, in an intense gunfight. The authorities said the guards mistakenly opened fire on Yemeni Coast Guard members but the ship’s manager insisted they shot at pirates.
The shooting reportedly killed one Yemeni Coast Guard member and wounded another person in a hail of gunfire — the guards are said to have shot as many as 200 rounds of ammunition. It shows the danger faced by both shippers and security forces in the waters off the Arab world’s poorest country, even as it remains crucial for global commerce.
Details of what happened to the Kalizma remain unclear and contested, hours after the incident. The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations initially reported it as an attack with gunfire off Nishtun, in Yemen’s far east near the border with Oman.
But by Friday afternoon, the British military operation providing support to ships across the Mideast described the attack in the Gulf of Aden as being “confirmed by authorities as government agency activity,” without elaborating.
Ambrey, a maritime intelligence company, said in a brief that a Yemeni Coast Guard contingent had approached a Cook Islands-flagged yacht which hadn’t responded to radio calls.
According to the Coast Guard, “an armed security team … onboard the yacht then opened fire on the approaching Yemenis and attempted to escape perceived pirates,” Ambrey said. The Coast Guard “returned fire and followed the yacht for approximately an hour until communications with the yacht could be established and the misunderstanding between the parties resolved.”
Ambrey said one Yemeni Coast Guard member was killed. Yemeni officials did not acknowledge the incident publicly. Yemen’s Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Aashim Mongia, the owner of Mumbai’s West Coast Marine Yacht Services which manages the Kalizma, later told The Associated Press that one of the guards on board the vessel suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He insisted that “pirates” attacked the vessel first and came back in several waves to try to take the Kalizma, forcing the ship’s three guards to fire upward of 200 rounds to protect the nine crew on board.
“If it was the Yemeni Coast Guard, why did they open fire?” Mongia asked.
Satellite tracking data analyzed by the AP showed the Kalizma far closer to shore than other traffic that gives Yemen a wide berth. Asked why the ship was so close to shore, Mongia said that was the planned route the vessel had for going from Salalah, Oman, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
The satellite tracking data analyzed by the AP, cross-referenced with coordinates authorities earlier offered for the site of the incident, identified the Cook Islands-flagged Kalizma as the yacht involved in the shooting.
Photos from the ship showed what appeared to be bullet holes from small arms fire scattered across the luxurious Kalizma.
Local newspaper Aden Al-Ghad, citing the Yemeni Coast Guard and the military police allied to the country’s internationally recognized government, also reported that one of its members had been killed in the shootout. It also posted a photograph of the Kalizma, apparently taken from a distance.
Initially built in 1906, Burton bought the Kalizma for $220,000 in 1967 It was on board the ship where he gave actress and his twice-wife Elizabeth Taylor a 69.42-carat, pear-shaped diamond now known as the Taylor-Burton Diamond.
The ship later was purchased by Indian investor Shirish Saraf, according to a profile by magazine Boat International. Requests for comment to Saraf’s investment firm Samena Capital went unanswered Friday.
Nishtun is held by forces allied to Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition. The Gulf of Aden is a crucial route for global trade and has seen attacks attributed to Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels during the country’s yearslong civil war. Somali pirate attacks that once plagued the region have mostly stopped in recent years.