DUBAI // Somali pirates holding a UAE-registered cargo vessel have demanded the release of fellow-hijackers from prison before they free the ship.
A man claiming to be a pirate called Yusuf Ali said his gang also hoped for a small ransom for the MV Leila, hijacked off Oman last month, but his demand for a prisoner release marks a new turn in piracy negotiations.
“We will not release the ship until the prisoners are released,” the pirate said on Somaliland’s Horn Cable TV on Monday.
“Somaliland harasses us and jails us for 20 years while in Yemen we only serve seven years.
“We hijacked the ship to send a message to the businessmen to convince their government to release our colleagues.”
Somaliland has more than 100 pirates in prison, under a deal by which Somali pirates convicted in other countries can serve their sentences there.
Under recently passed legislation, piracy is a crime with a maximum jail term of 25 years. Before, Somaliland could charge suspected pirates only with armed robbery.
About a dozen pirates boarded the MV Leila 50 nautical miles off the coast of Oman in mid-February.
A few days later employees at the Dubai company that owns the vessel, New Port Cargo and Shipping Company, said they were in radio contact with the 15-man crew from India, Pakistan and Somalia, who were safe.
Initially, employees said they believed the MV Leila was hijacked because the pirates wanted help in repairing their own ship.
It was hoped that once repairs were complete the pirates would release the vessel, since the owner of the cargo is in Somaliland and therefore better placed than most to negotiate.
The MV Leila, one of two ships owned by New Port, had made deliveries to Somalia for nine years and never been hijacked.
Maritime security websites report that the pirates are now using the vessel as a mother ship for their operations in the Indian Ocean.
The chairman of Somaliland’s Chamber of Commerce, Mohamed Shukri, appealed to traditional elders to help to free the vessel.
“The goods in the ship are owned by many small businessmen, some of whom are young and whose entire capital is on the ship. As Somalis and Muslims, I appeal to the pirates to release the ship without any conditions,” he said.
* Additional reporting by Reuters