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Hostages should not be abandoned, experts at Dubai conference say

Governments and the shipping community must not abandon hostages being held captive by Somali pirates and should take on the challenge of bringing them home, experts urged at a piracy conference yesterday.

DUBAI // Governments and the shipping community must not abandon hostages being held captive by Somali pirates and should take on the challenge of bringing them home, experts urged at a piracy conference yesterday.

"These men are tortured and face unacceptable abuse by young Somali pirates," said Pottendal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). "We owe it to them to get these people back. It would be a terrible indictment on us if we didn't do everything in our power to get them back."

To date, there are nine ships and 154 seamen being held by pirates, according to IMB statistics.

Of these, the MV Iceberg 1, with 23 crew, has been held for 31 months and four other vessels, with 62 crew, have been held captive for more than one year.

"The violence these seamen face is the reason we must keep talking about piracy," Mr Mukundan said.

"They are traumatised in captivity and the effects are very serious. While the vast majority of shipowners do manage to release their crew at considerable cost to themselves, a handful of rogue shipowners give shipping a bad name."

Delegates at the Seatrade Middle East Maritime conference, which ends today, were also shown photographs of crew bound with ropes, many with burn marks, deep gashes and wounds.

Roberto Giorgi, the president of V Ships, also called for co-ordinated action to free kidnapped crewmen. The ship management company were crew managers of the oil tanker Savina Caylyn released after 11 months last year with five Italians and 17 Indians following a ransom payment.

"We must talk about the human element, about those kidnapped who are still suffering," Mr Giorgi said.

"MV Iceberg is owned by a Dubai company and it has been held for the longest time. The vessel has been abandoned by the owner. My point is: what do we do about it?"

One of the 24 crew members of the MV Iceberg 1 died last year. The ship, owned by Dubai-based Azal Shipping, was captured in March 2010 and has sailors from Yemen, India, Ghana, Pakistan, Sudan and the Philippines. Negotiations failed after the Yemeni company owner failed to meet a July ransom deadline set by the Somali pirates.

The MT Royal Grace, another Dubai-owned ship, was hijacked in March. Its 22-man crew comprises 17 Indians, three Nigerians, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi. Relatives say one crew member has died due to lack of medication and they are unable to reach the owner.

Although relatives have appealed to governments and ship owners, officials have traditionally said they cannot be part of negotiations with pirates and owners said they cannot afford ransom amounts.

While statistics have shown that the number of piracy attacks fell from 176 last year to 35 until October this year, the shipping community urged that the focus should not shift from freeing the hostages.

Simon Osborne, the sales director of maritime security company Protection Vessels International, said there had been several instances of brutal torture. "When insurers and shipowners are not ready to settle initial ransom amounts, there is a threat of violence - the crew are forced to make phone calls home to add to the pressure," he said.

"There have been cases of sailors' arms being amputated and sailors being killed."

Todd J Offutt, the commander of the US Coastguard and the officer-in-charge of the US Maritime Liaison Office, said it was also imperative to save the evidence of piracy attacks once a ship was released so the raiders could be prosecuted.

"We are working with owners and operators to explain to the crew that evidence must be saved," he said.

"When a ship is released, the first thing the crew wants to do is clean up. This evidence is crucial."

rtalwar@thenational.ae

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