x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Doctors visited 11 men held by Somali pirates. The men are among 64 seamen from Bangladesh, Yemen, India and Sri Lanka being held in Somalia.

The Yemeni captain of the ship MV Iceberg 1, Abdul Razaq, being helped by the Puntland’s Maritime Police Force unit Courtesy Mohamad Abdirahman, PMPF director.
The Yemeni captain of the ship MV Iceberg 1, Abdul Razaq, being helped by the Puntland’s Maritime Police Force unit Courtesy Mohamad Abdirahman, PMPF director.

DUBAI // Somali pirates recently allowed a doctor to treat 11 crewmen from the MV Albedo held captive for nearly three years.

It has been recognised as a significant breakthrough achieved by a specially constituted United Nations group.

The Hostage Support Programme, initiated in October last year, aims to provide medical care to hostages and help in emergency evacuations once they are released.

“We have been working on this for a while and this is the first time they [the pirates] have allowed a medical visit to a crew in captivity,” said Leonardo Hoy-Carrasco, an officer with the programme supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“This is also about moral support so they know they are not forgotten and somebody is trying to do something. The doctor reported the men were suffering from rashes, infections that are not dangerous but could become really serious if not treated.”

They required medicine for malaria, controlling blood pressure and stomach ailments caused by drinking dirty water. The doctor was allowed to visit two weeks ago and again on September 11.

The Malaysian-flagged MV Albedo was seized in November 2010 after the ship left Jebel Ali for Kenya.

The 11 men are among 64 seamen from Bangladesh, Yemen, India and Sri Lanka being held in Somalia. Of these, 53 have been prisoners for more than two years, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

The majority are from commercial ships, the rest are fishermen from small dhows captured by pirates. Owners say there are no funds for their release after their ships sunk in rough waters. The MV Albedo sank in July.

The plight of long-term hostages was highlighted during the third Counter-Piracy conference, which came to an end in Dubai on Thursday, with government ministers and business leaders pledging to work to free the men.

Mohammed Sharaf, the group chief executive of DP World, said it was imperative to continue such discussions.

“We are keen that the issue of the men in captivity does not slip off the radar,” he said. “The average period of men being held in captivity is two years and long-term impact on the men and their families is significant. It is our duty to keep the radar on those still in captivity.”

The recent UNODC effort won praise as much-needed ground-level support.

“The ones left are very high-risk hostages and in very bad humanitarian conditions,” said Jon Huggins, director of advocacy group Oceans Beyond Piracy.

“The problem is that with the owners backing out, there is no one for the pirates to talk to. This is a great effort to deal with retrieval.”

The programme was formulated after a group of hostages was found in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia, more than a year ago.

“Nobody knew where they came from, who they were and what to do with them,” recalled Mr Hoy-Carrasco.

“Many have been there more than 1,000 days. The idea was to build a programme so when they are freed, we extract the hostages. The programme was intended from medical care in captivity to repatriation to the home country.”

Mr Hoy-Carrasco also helped repatriate hostages from the UAE-owned cargo ship MV Iceberg in December last year. The 22 men were rescued by Puntland’s Maritime Police Force after a 13-day siege and gun battle with Somali pirates.

According to a March 2013 Counter-Piracy document, 46 hostages have been helped to return home by the UNODC programme.

The group works with local leaders and sends out messages to pirate groups that they do not stand to gain by holding the hostages.

“The only thing we cannot do is be involved in ransom negotiations,” Mr Hoy-Carrasco said.

“We are involved in humanitarian aid and we can act only when they are released. We also put the message to pirates and the community that these guys have been abandoned by their owner, the ship has sunk and they come from poor families that have already suffered for years.”

rtalwar@thenational.ae