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'We start killing hostages tomorrow' pirates tell family of Dubai crew

Somali pirates have threatened to kill hostages on the Dubai-based MT Royal Grace ship, prompting relatives to appeal to governments for help before tomorrow's deadline.

DUBAI // Somali pirates have threatened to start killing hostages aboard the Dubai ship MT Royal Grace, sparking desperate appeals from relatives for government intervention before tomorrow’s deadline.

The empty chemical tanker with a crew of 17 Indians, three Nigerians, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi was hijacked in March off the coast of Oman after it set sail for Nigeria from Sharjah.

More than 20 relatives gathered this week at the shipping ministry office in New Delhi, India, demanding government action.

“We got a call and we were clearly told that they were giving us until November 30 or that was the end,” said Sharmishta, a relative of a hostage. “They told us to ask our governments or they will start on the men, one by one.

“Now only governments can help us because none of us can ever pay the ransom and the ship’s owner told us they don’t have the money.

“Their lives are dependent on someone talking to the pirates. We don’t have any contacts in the UAE or Nigeria, so we are appealing through the media.”

The pirates want US$2 million (Dh7.3m) to free the crew and ship.

A Nigerian sailor has already died because of a lack of medication, the relatives said.

The vessel is part of the Dubai company Oyster Cargo and Shipping, which is owned by a Nigerian businessman.

“The ministers told us that it will be resolved and we should be patient,” said Sushil Kumar, whose younger brother, Saurav, 24, is being held captive on his first voyage.

“Time is running out but we have been asked to wait a week. When I spoke to my brother, he said we must get them out because anything could happen to them now.

“Somebody must help; we have tried everything with our government. If this is not solved, all of them will be gone.”

The Indian shipping minister G?K Vasan said efforts were continuing for the release of the crew. But officials also restated the government’s position that they could not be involved in ransom negotiations.

“Governments have traditionally avoided paying ransoms on the grounds that, if they do, all their citizens will be at risk from kidnappers,” said Jon Lee, an analyst for Compass Risk Management, which has been involved in negotiations to free crews.

“What governments can do is to use their contacts to put pressure on the host nation to resolve the situation and, in some cases, use their local contacts to help families, or those acting for them, to open a dialogue with the kidnappers.”

Company representatives said negotiations were ongoing but did not provide details.

There are nine ships and 154 seamen being held by pirates, according to International Maritime Bureau statistics.

Another Dubai-owned ship, the MV Iceberg 1, with 23 crew, is the longest held by Somali pirates. They seized it 31 months ago.

Mr Lee said the ability of owners to negotiate with pirates was critical.

“Some will have this covered by insurance. Many don’t have the cover and thus access to specialists to advise,” he said.

“Insurance will also give access to the necessary funds to pay the extortionate ransom demand.”

During a shipping conference in Dubai this week, piracy experts appealed for coordinated action between governments. They urged the early release of hostages so they are not subjected to the torture, brutality and depravation that Somali pirates can inflict.

“Let us not forget these men,” said Pottendal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau. “We should work to get them back to their families.

“Just because the victims and the ships are out of sight, it does not mean that we should not do our best to set them free.” 

rtalwar@thenational.ae

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