Wednesday, August 29, 2012
By Colin Freeman
Somali pirates are holding hostages for ever longer Photo: AFP
The plight of a ship's crew held hostage for more than two and half years has become a "scar on the conscience of the shipping industry", reports Colin Freeman
She set sail from Aden in the spring of 2010, the start of a long journey that should have seen her deliver a cargo of electrical equipment to England. Then, barely ten miles out to sea, the Iceberg 1 suffered a fate all too predictable for a slow-going cargo craft in the Gulf of Aden: she was hijacked by Somali pirates.
Unlike the scores of other vessels snared there in recent years, though, no ransom has been forthcoming to free her crew of 24, nor has a foreign navy tried to rescue them. Instead, nearly two and a half years later, they are still in captivity on the high seas - seemingly abandoned by the ship’s owners, and with the dubious distinction of being the longest hijack case in modern maritime history.
Conditions on board are believed to be dire, with the crew kept huddled in a small room with only limited access to food and water. Many have complained that they are being driven mad by their ordeal, and for at least one, it already appears to have proved too much. In October 2010 the ship’s Yemeni third officer, Wagdi Akram, committed suicide by jumping overboard, apparently unhinged from stress. At least one other sailor, a Ghanaian, is also believed to have died - whether by his own hand, or by that of his pirate captors remains unclear. It is understood that the ship’s freezer is now being used as a makeshift morgue.
"The sailors' plight is now on the conscience of everyone in shipping," one shipping industry figure told The Sunday Telgraph. "The ordeal for the crew and their families is just unimaginable, yet there doesn't seem to be anybody coming to their aid."
The Iceberg 1 is one of several long-running hijackings on the Indian Ocean, and a stark reminder that despite reports earlier this month that the pirates' activities are finally being curbed, some 177 hostages still remain in captivity, according to the latest figures.
While the success rate of Somali pirate attacks has dropped dramatically thanks to improved safety measures and the use of armed guards on ships, those crews that do fall into pirate hands are likely to be held for much longer and treated more harshly in a bid to extract higher ransoms. The average length of a hijacking now is eight months, according to the recent Oceans Beyond Piracy study, which also highlights incidents of crews being beaten and tortured.
Such hijacks take place under the nose of the international anti-piracy fleet, which is still struggling to curb the problem after nearly four years in operation. The fear of suffering casualties - especially civilian ones - means the foreign navies seldom attempt to free hijacked vessels by force, preferring to let ship owners negotiate ransoms instead.
The problem comes in cases like the Iceberg 1, when there is apparently no ransom cash to be had. The ship, for which the hijackers initially demanded an $8 million ransom, is owned by Dubai-based Azal Shipping & Cargo, whose management have been accused of leaving the crew to their fate. Until last month, Azal had declined to even meet with the hostages’ families, who say they have also refused to pay wages in absentia for the sailors, many of whom are the main breadwinners in their households.
Calls and emails by this newspaper to Azal have never been returned. Shipping industry sources have told The Sunday Telegraph, however, that they believe the firm did not have kidnap and ransom insurance, which is now considered essential for shipping through the Gulf of Aden. “It doesn’t seem like there has been anyone negotiating on the ship’s behalf at all,” observed one industry figure.
“Unfortunately, it is not unusual for some smaller, less wealthy firms in places like the Middle East not to pay for kidnap and ransom insurance, and just hope that their ships don’t get hijacked."
Peter Swift, the UK-based chairman of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP), a pan-industry alliance of shipping organisations set up to help kidnapped sailors, said: “We have grave concern for the well-being of the crew of the Iceberg 1, who have now been held for more than 29 months in appalling conditions, and great sympathy for their families, who are currently suffering extreme financial hardship, are deprived of reliable information and have only very limited communication with their loved ones. Alarmingly, the owner of the ship appears to have totally abandoned the crew. Presently, there are therefore no parties willing or able to meet the pirates’ demands for the sailors' release”.
Originally crewed by six Indians, nine Yemenis, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese, two Pakistanis and one Filipino, the Iceberg 1 was reportedly carrying a cargo of generators, transformers and empty fuel tanks for a British power rental company, Aggreko International Power Projects, and was due to head to England after visiting a number of other ports. According to EUNavfor, when the ship was attacked, on March 29, 2010, it was not travelling within the “International Recommended Transit Corridor” - a designated stretch of water regularly patrolled by the anti-piracy force.
It was then taken to an anchorage near Hobyo, an ancient Somali port town that is now a major pirate stronghold. Contact with the crew has since been limited to occasional phone calls home, and the exact picture on board remains unclear.
However, in an interview with the AFP news agency nine months into their captivity, the ship’s Yemeni captain, Abdirazzak Ali Saleh, said the crew spent almost their entire time locked up in a cabin just five metres square, guarded at all times by masked pirates carrying machine guns.
“Diseases have appeared among crew members, one has lost his eyesight and another has serious stomach problems,” he added. “The water we have is unclean and we have only one meal a day, boiled rice, that’s it.”
In a separate interview last year with an Indian television station, the ship’s chief officer, Diraj Diwari, 26, by then sporting a thick beard, said: “The owner of the ship doesn’t care even if all of us die. Other crew members are all sick and having mental disturbances. Please help us before another crew member dies.”
Last month, a meeting was finally arranged in Dubai between the ship's owners, two of the Indian families and a local Indian diplomat. However, hopes that it would lead to a deal to free the hostages are undestood to have failed. "We have no faith in the owner's ability to deliver," said Ansar Burney, a Pakistan-based philanthropist who helped broker the meeting.
The situation has been complicated by the crew’s multinational make-up, which is typical of modern commercial seafaring. While India’s navy is one of the few that has been willing to risk aggressive raids against pirate gangs holding its citizens hostage, authorising such operations is much more difficult when foreign nationals from so many other countries are involved.
The Indian government's robust approach, which has led to the arrest of scores of pirates, has also led to some pirate gangs keeping Indian hostages as bargaining chips to get their own brethren released. Such was the case in the MV Albedo, which was hijacked in November 2010. While other Albedo crew have since been released after the payment of a $1.1 million ransom, one Indian sailor has been kept back in what The Sunday Telegraph understand is an attempt to secure the release of a pirate leader.
Drawn mainly from poor backgrounds, many sailors in long-running hijack cases feel that their governments do not exercise much clout when it comes to kicking up much of a diplomatic fuss on their behalf. “Since we come from poor countries, nobody comes forward to help us,” Mr Diwari said in his interview with Indian television.
Roy Paul, another official with the MPHRP, added that tougher rules were needed to ensure that ship owners looked after their crews properly.
"The shipping industry needs to ensure that people who own ships are bona fide operators and can afford to protect the crews that they hire," he said. "Many companies have reacted well to this terrible situation and have supported seafarers and their families. However some have not, and appear to have simply abandoned their crew."
For the crew of the Iceberg I, the best chance of freedom may now be to convince the pirates that they are indeed worth less than sailors from wealthier countries. Earlier this year, some $9 million was exchanged for two sailors from a hijacked fishing vessel, the Vega 5, a pay-out which sent the “going rate” for a pirate hostage in Somalia “skyrocketing”, according to one shipping industry negotiator.
In the case of the Iceberg 1, a rather more bargain basement deal is being sought. With no help forthcoming from the owners, sympathisers within the shipping industry may end up putting together an offer to simply cover the pirates “expenses”, a solution that has worked in other cases where no ransom cash has been available.
“It will be a fraction of what the pirates would have wanted,” said one shipping industry source. “But it will hopefully persuade them to give up on a bad business prospect, and get the crew home.”