x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dispute over ransom puts hostages' lives at risk

A dispute between those responsible for raising the ransom money has placed the release of 22 hostages aboard the pirated ship MV Albedo in jeopardy.

DUBAI // The release of 22 hostages on the MV Albedois in jeopardy because of a dispute over the amount of ransom money that has been promised and raised, negotiators said yesterday.

The Malaysian-flagged cargo vessel was seized by Somali pirates in November 2010 in the Gulf of Aden after setting sail for Kenya from Jebel Ali.

Negotiations in Dubai between a security team from Malaysia and Somali tribal leaders this week were intended to break the impasse with the pirates.

The talks sought the assistance of the influential Somali leaders in securing the release of the sailors, who have been held captive for the past 19 months.

"Negotiations were going well, but the elders and the team need to know when the money will be delivered by the Pakistani side," said Omid Khosrojerdi, the Iranian owner of the vessel.

"The Malaysian security team is now handling negotiations and they have said the money can be delivered to a secure account. Until this is done, it will put everything in danger."

Meanwhile, the Pakistani segment of the negotiating team has asked for details of the total ransom amount that has been collected so far.

Seven Pakistanis, seven Bangladeshi, six Sri Lankans, an Indian and an Iranian are being held on the MV Albedo. One Indian sailor died due to lack of medicine.

Initial reports suggested the Malaysian and the Pakistani side would each contribute about half of the US$2.85 million (Dh10.4m) ransom amount demanded by the pirates.

In a nationwide drive, the wives and children of the Pakistani hostages took their appeal to the roads, in front of mosques and on television. A group of philanthropists, businessmen and relatives announced on May 15 that they had raised part of the ransom amount.

While Mr Khosrojerdi said the amount collected was $1.7m, the Pakistani group said it was $1.1m.

Ahmed Chinoy, the chairman of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee in Karachi, who helped relatives to raise funds and aided negotiations, also called for details about the remaining amount raised by other countries and the ship's owner.

"We are ready at our end with $1.1m. We are requesting other nationalities and the owner to get back about the rest of the money," Mr Chinoy said.

"We've had promises made but those promises have not been met. The figure of $2.85m was finalised on March 22. Since then we desperately tried to raise funds and we collected $1.1m.

"It was a huge amount for us. The balance was supposed to be done by other nationalities and the owner."

Mr Khosrojerdi declined to give details of funds raised on the Malaysian side or how the money would reach the pirates, because state agencies were also involved in the negotiations.

"I cannot mention the amount exactly from this side and how it will be covered, but it is being handled," he said.

The payment of ransom to Somali pirates is a sensitive subject for most governments who do not want to be perceived as succumbing to blackmail from them. The United Nations Security Council last year called on member states to criminalise piracy.

But families say non-payment would lead to hostages being killed.

Meanwhile, relatives continued to worry about the safety of the crew, with persistent threatening calls from pirates warning of the men being beaten up and starved.

Relatives of Sri Lankan hostages have been calling the Malaysian and Pakistani teams to ask if money should be raised individually for each hostage.

Mr Chinoy said there was pressure from the pirates to release the money that the Pakistanis had raised to free their countrymen.

"For the last few weeks the pirates have been demanding that we pay them whatever money we have and they will release the Pakistani crew," he said.

"I'm reluctant to accept the offer because we collected the money in the name of all the 22 crew and my commitment is to release all the crew.

"So far I've said we shouldn't be part of that and we must try to get everyone released because the lives of the others will be in danger."

rtalwar@thenational.ae