DUBAI // A 13-day siege has led to the release of 22 hostages held aboard the Dubai-owned MV Iceberg 1 for close to three years.
The Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) - the coastal police force of Puntland, an autonomous region in northeastern Somalia - launched an attack against the Somali pirates to free eight Yemenis, five Indians, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese, two Pakistanis and a Filipino man who had been held captive since March 29, 2010.
“We thought the whole world had forgotten us but then the attack started, and again we began to hope and pray,” said 25-year-old Swapnil Jadhav, a seaman from western India’s Sangli town.
Mohamad Abdirahman, PMPF director, said: “Our forces started the operation on December 10, when they went to the coast and laid siege to the ship with the approval of the Puntland government. We had the military resources to rescue them.”
An Indian and a Pakistani sailor were released a day before the remaining 20 were set free on Sunday. Both men had suffered minor gunshot wounds in the legs and waist and are now being treated along with their shipmates for starvation and malnutrition at a military base in Puntland’s coastal Ely town.
Three pirates were killed, three were captured and nine fled the cargo ship, which is now grounded off the coast of northern Somalia near the village of Gara’ad in Puntland’s Mudug region.
“When the firing started, we thought it would be over in three to four days,” said Mr Jadhav, who was shot in the leg during the exchange of fire between the pirates and the Puntland forces. But after a week we were really scared and all our hearts were beating so loud. We stayed below deck to save ourselves because the forces didn’t know where we were on the ship. For days we didn’t have proper water and we got one small bowl of lentils to eat. But now we are free.”
Not every sailor has been accounted for, however. There were 24 crew on board the Panama-flagged vessel, owned by Dubai’s Azal Shipping, when it was seized.
A Yemeni crew member died in October 2010 and the whereabouts of Chief Officer Dhiraj Tiwari are still unknown.
“When our ship ran aground on September 3 last year, they tortured us a lot, especially Dhiraj Tiwari because he was the second in command,” recalled Indian seaman Ganesh Mohite, 26.
“They asked us to work the pump and use buckets to remove the water. After September 8, whenever we asked about him, they said, ‘How do we know? You should know where he is.’ We fear they did something to him.”
Mr Abdirahman, the PMPF director, said they would press the captured pirates for more information about Mr Tiwari.
In the build-up to the rescue, it was hard to keep track of the crew since the pirates constantly moved them on and off the ship, said Abdrirashid Abbas Ali, the PMPF’s government coordinator.
The next priority will be providing medical care for the freed men. “After nearly three years of captivity, the hostages have signs of severe physical torture and illness,” Mr Ali said. “We have to provide them with a lot of care so they can regain their health.”
He said his government was already in contact with other nations to repatriate the men.
The rescue has been lauded by the international community. “This action was taken solely by the Puntland Maritime Police Force,” said Pottendal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau.
“It sends a strong signal to the pirates that they can no longer rely on the impunity they have enjoyed in the past. We commend the PMPF for their actions.”