Thursday, 21 April 2011

Pirates release ship but keep Indian crew hostage

“We will keep these Indians until the Indians release our colleagues”.

In developments that promise to dramatically escalate the piracy crisis, Somali pirates have released a bitumen carrier but have kept back some- reports suggest seven- of the Indian crew as hostages. The Associated Press says that a pirate said that “the Indian crew members' hostage ordeal is being prolonged in retaliation for the arrests of more than 100 Somali pirates by the Indian Navy”.

"We decided to keep the Indian because India is holding our colleagues," pirate Hassan Farah said. "We released the other crew members who sailed away from our coast. We will keep these Indians until the Indians release our colleagues."

Another pirate said, “We need the Indian government to free our men so that we can release their citizens."

The Panamanian registered 3,884-deadweight tonne MT Asphalt Venture was on a passage from Mombasa to Durban when it was taken on September 29 last year. Unconfirmed reports say that a ransom of $3.6 million was paid before she was released on Friday. "We have received $3.6 million early this morning for the release of the tanker," said a pirate calling himself Ahmed. The ship is managed by Mumbai-based OMCI Ship management Pvt Ltd and owned by Bitumen Invest AS of the UAE, according to media reports.

Earlier reports had said that all Indian crew were kept back, but it now appears that all the 15 crew on the ship were Indians, and 8 of them have been released along with the ship. Six officers and one rating are still hostage. The pirates claim that the decision to hold the Indian crew back was taken collectively by the pirates, and that the hostages are being moved on land.

The Indian authorities have been especially aggressive in authorising the Indian Navy to pursue and fire on mother ships; around 120 pirates, mostly from Somalia, are believed to have been apprehended by the Indian Navy over the past few months and are detained in India. In just one incident last month, the country’s navy had captured 61 pirates and brought them ashore to face the law. Many were teenagers.

Stories of Somali pirates targeting Korean ships has been doing the rounds for some time, after Korean commandos retook a Samho vessel and either killed or apprehended the pirates on board. The murder of four American yacht sailors off Somalia this year is also seen by some as a reaction to the US navy’s actions in hostage situations, including those in the Maersk Alabama incident.

Some analysts have been critical of the Indian Navy’s recent aggressive posture, saying that firing on mother ships that have hostage crews aboard, often being used as human shields, would put crews at grave risk of torture or death and dramatically escalate violence against them. It appears that these fears have not been unfounded.

This weekend’s pirate action means that there is now a major change in their normal practice of releasing crews and ships after ransoms have been paid. What the pirates seem to be saying is that they will henceforth target crews depending on the anti-piracy actions that their governments and navies take, and that pirates will target any country’s sailors if that country’s navy is aggressive. Pirates will become even more hostile and violent with hostages, analysts warn, saying that the situation has escalated beyond control.

These unacceptable developments also mean another thing: that sailors who are taken hostage will remain on tenterhooks even if ransoms have been paid and their ships are about to be released. Their ordeal may yet get worse.

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