Hijacked ship finally freed, 18 Indians on way home (Roundup)November 16th, 2008 - 8:51 pm ICT by IANS
New Delhi/Mumbai, Nov 16 (IANS) A Japanese-owned cargo vessel Somalia’s feared pirates hijacked two months ago was finally set free Sunday, ending a traumatic ordeal for the 18 Indian crew members who were now on their way home, officials and relieved families said.The pirates let go Mt Stolt Valor after reportedly collecting $2.5 million from the ship’s owners, down from the $6 million they had been insisting for its release, family members in India said.
All crew members are “safe and in healthy condition”, National Union of Seafarers of India’s general secretary A.G. Serang told IANS on telephone from Hong Kong.
The vessel was released at around 7.45 a.m. (Indian time) and was expected to reach Mumbai in three to four days, he said.
Serang said: “Now the relevant official formalities of governments of different countries and shipping authorities are being worked out and very soon all crew members shall be reunited with their families.”
The ship’s other crew members were two Filipinos, a Bangladeshi and a Russian. It was hijacked Sep 15 in the busy Gulf of Aden while on its way to Mumbai with 24,000 tonnes of oil products.
The pirates, who have become a menace to international shipping lines, took the ship to the eastern coast of Somalia.
Thus began a torturous saga for the families of the sailors. In India, distraught families came together to press the government to take steps to have the ship freed.
The main campaigner was Seema Goyal, wife of Captain Prabhat Kumar Goyal who organised candlelight vigils, met Japanese diplomats in New Delhi and also held repeated meetings with Indian officials.
On Sunday, as news of the ship’s release came, the housemaker broke down in joy and thanked “all Indians” for supporting her crusade to free the crew members.
“I thank all Indians who prayed for the safe release of the ship and joined hands with me. I received a call saying the ship has been released. I am just so happy. I am waiting for a call from the ship. I am looking forward to the people to come back in three-four days,” she said. Speaking to reporters, she added: “Thank you so much!”
R.S. Goyal, father of the captain, was equally ecstatic: “We are celebrating!”
Captain P. Unnikrishna, father of crew member Ullas Krishna, added: “I am happy and thank everybody who prayed for us. It (the release) has come after a long wait. Everybody was crying and praying. I am thankful to the Indian government and the Japanese company. The company has been kind enough to have paid the ransom.”
Thangam Krishna, mother of Ullas Krishna, said: “Everybody gave me courage to face (the crisis). I am happy”.
Roshni Rodrigues, sister of another crew member, said: “It’s great! We thank the Lord.”
Sunil Nair of the National Union of Seafarers said the hijacked crew members faced a shortage of supplies. He added that it would take another 40 hours for the ship to cross the piracy-plagued Gulf of Aden.
The Gulf of Aden connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is one of the world’s busiest waterways with some 20,000 ships passing through it each year.
Commander Neerad Sinha of the Indian Navy, which has now sent warships off Somalia, said the navy was monitoring the freed ship and “will provide security if asked for”.
Somalia, lying to the north of Madagascar, has been identified by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) as the area with the highest piracy risk in the world.
Nearly 60 attacks on merchant ships have been reported this year alone. About 20 merchant ships are still held by Somali pirates even as warships from European countries are patrolling the Gulf of Aden.
For India, monitoring the waters off Africa’s east coast is vital to ensure energy supplies coming through the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Navy has for the first time sent a warship to the area for anti-piracy patrols along the route that Indian merchant vessels normally take during their passage between Oman and Aden.
The release of Mt Stolt Valor comes barely a week after the Indian Navy’s stealth frigate INS Tabar repulsed a pirate attack on a Saudi Arabian merchant ship and an Indian cargo vessel.
According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there were 37 incidents of piracy off the Somalia coast between mid-March 2005 and mid-February 2006, compared to just two in 2004.
The IMB says 74 ships have been attacked off Somalia since January, of which 30 were hijacked. Ten are still held for ransom. Pirates are holding almost 200 crew.
Experts say that many attacks go unreported along Somalia’s coast where heavily-armed pirates operate high-powered speedboats.