Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ro/Ro Cargo Vessel Crew Freed from Pirate Gang in Time for Christmas

Twenty Two Liberated After the Death of Two Colleagues
Shipping News Feature

SOMALIA – Twenty two families from across the globe received the best Christmas present ever when the crew of the Iceberg 1, held by pirates for 1000 long, miserable days, were finally freed. The Panamanian flagged Ro/Ro cargo vessel was taken in March 2010 and the men reported they were tortured by their captors both physically and mentally until elements of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) rescued all twenty two after a prolonged gun battle with the pirates.

Reports from the forces involved have naturally been sketchy for security reasons but it seems that the Police fought a gun battle with the pirates who ran low on ammunition following which an attempt to rearm them resulted in the death of three pirates with three others captured the overall encounter taking fully thirteen days before rescue was effected. Around nine pirates fled at the last leaving two of the seafarers with minor gunshot wounds received during the exchanges of fire. The crewmen come from Ghana, Yemen, India, Sudan, Pakistan and the Philippines but tragically during their long ordeal two of their colleagues died.

In September 2011 we covered the launch of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) which was established by a cross industry group of 27 partners to assist seafarers and their families with the humanitarian aspects of a traumatic incident caused by a piracy attack, armed robbery or being taken hostage. Chairman Peter Swift commented on the rescue saying:

“We are greatly relieved to hear that they are safe after their terrible ordeal and to hear that that they will soon be returning to their homes. It has also been wonderful to hear the expressions of joy and happiness from their families as the news of their release reached them. We are of course grateful to all those who have played a part in their rescue and are making the arrangements for their medical and other check-ups and their repatriation. Now we hope that both public and private organisations will work to ensure that the released hostages, as well as their families, receive all the necessary support and assistance they will require both immediately and longer term as they recover from the trauma and deprivation that they have suffered.

“While we are overjoyed at the release of these 22 seafarers we must not forget that 2 of their colleagues died during their captivity on Iceberg 1 and our thoughts are equally with the families of those who have not returned. Similarly our thoughts and prayers are with the more than 140 seafarers and fishermen still held hostage on other ships and ashore in Somalia and call on all parties to do all within their power to hasten their release and safe return.”

Roy Paul, Programme Director of MPHRP added:

“The news of their release is a great Christmas and holiday present for the families of these seafarers who have had an horrific ordeal for the past 1000 days. MPHRP staff along with its industry and welfare partners has tried to offer what support they could and we now will look at offering to support the national authorities and our network of responders to provide both immediate and on-going care.”

Chirag Bahri, MPHRP Regional Director for South Asia said that he has been able to speak to the families who are very excited and extremely happy on the news of release all of whom were eagerly waiting to meet with their loved ones after a long traumatic ordeal whilst the MPHRP would continue its support of the crew and families in the best ways possible.

Many in the shipping sector will wonder at the time taken to release the crew of the Iceberg1 and the owners of the vessel do not currently come out of the story well judging by local news reports. The vessel is owned by a Dubai registered company, Azal Shipping, apparently controlled by a Yemeni national (the ship was taken in the waters off the coast of Aden) and accusations have been made that not only were ransom negotiations abandoned before resolution but that the families of the crew were not paid. With no comment forthcoming from the owners these are questions which perhaps should be addressed by the authorities concerned with the intention of forming a code of practice in the case of similar incidents in the future.

Photo: An officer from the Puntland Maritime Police Force assists the ships Yemeni engineer Mohammed Ali Khan following the rescue. Courtesy of PMPF.