DUBAI // Relatives of men held hostage by Somali pirates have said their hopes were raised after Indian authorities assured them that diplomats will intervene in negotiations with the UAE-based ship owner.
A demonstration by families whose sons have been held hostage in separate hijacking incidents drew some 200 relatives to New Delhi last week, where protesters demanded swift government action. The protesters included 25 relatives of six Indian crewmen whose UAE-owned ship, the MV Iceberg I, was hijacked on March 29, 2010.
Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, assured relatives at the March 10 meeting that the government would strive to effect the release of their sons, relatives who attended the meet said.
"We hope something will happen soon," said Mansing Mittal Mohite, whose 24-year-old son Ganesh is being held hostage on the vessel. "The PM gave us an assurance that the government would be involved in talking to the ship owners.
"Most of the ships are owned by foreign countries, so government intervention is the only thing that will help us."
He said he last spoke with his son last week when he received a call from the ship where he is being held hostage.
"My son spoke in Marathi [a regional Indian language] so he would not be understood by the pirates and sounded very anxious," Mr Mohite said. "He said we should try and get them out soon because they don't know how long they can continue."
Mr Mohite said two pirates who identified themselves as Abdul and Ali also talked to him.
"I couldn't understand much, but I think they kept saying that the ransom must be increased," he said. "I tried to make them understand that I couldn't do anything about it."
Indian authorities said they were in touch with other governments involved in the issue, as well as the families of the kidnapped sailors.
"The issue requires international co-ordination," said the Indian consul, Sanjay Verma. "We are in touch with representatives of other governments. The negotiation is largely between the company and the pirates and we can only put pressure on the company to expedite the process."
Mr Verma also said that negotiation was a complex process, and that beyond persuading the company to expedite the process, little could be done if the ransom was beyond the company's means.
No figures have been released on the ransom negotiations. Ship owners generally keep these figures secret to keep pirates from inflating their ransom demands.
"We have been consumed by this issue. We have been counselling family members of the sailors," Mr Verma said.
According to the Ministry of External Affairs, 53 Indian sailors remained captive by Somali pirates.
Mr Verma said the media was taking an "emotive" stand on the issue, and it wasn't helping matters.
SM Krishna, India's external affairs minister, told parliament last Thursday that diplomats would be involved in talks. It was the first public announcement this year that the Indian government would help expedite negotiations between the ship owners and the pirates.
"We will have to be restrained but at the same time we will have to pursue vigorously through back channels," Mr Krishna was quoted as saying by the IANS news agency. "There cannot be any time limit. The incident is disturbing and serious. New Delhi attaches utmost importance to the safety and security of the Indian sailors."
The Dubai-based Azal Shipping Company, which owns the MV Iceberg I, confirmed that it had been contacted by the Indian consulate. It declined to comment further.
Sunita Tiwari, 25, whose brother Dheeraj is one of those being held on the MV Iceberg I, expressed doubt that government intervention would bring progress.
Since the vessel was hijacked last March, Azal Shipping had told her that negotiations were ongoing, she said.
"Now the government is saying they are pressurising the owners. Until the results come out we can't trust anyone," she said. "It's almost one year. And one year is too much time."
*With additional reporting by Preeti Kannan