x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Freed crew of UAE tanker Royal Grace anxious to get home

Undisclosed ransom paid to Somali pirates ends year-long ordeal of 21 crewmen held hostage after hijacking in the Gulf of Oman.

The European Union Naval Force (EU Navfor) flagship Mendez Nunez approaches MV Royal Grace. Courtesy of EU Navfor
The European Union Naval Force (EU Navfor) flagship Mendez Nunez approaches MV Royal Grace. Courtesy of EU Navfor

DUBAI // As the crew of the UAE-owned MV Royal Grace waited to come ashore yesterday after being held by pirates for more than a year, the captain said his men were weak, weary and desperate to go home.

The empty chemical tanker, owned by the Dubai company Oyster Cargo and Shipping, was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Oman on March 2 last year while on its way to Nigeria. It was released four days ago after an undisclosed ransom was paid.

The crew consisted of 17 Indians, two Nigerians, one Bangladeshi and one Pakistani.

Anchored off the port of Salalah, Oman, yesterday, captain Shankar Dutta and his crew completed departure formalities and waited for a new crew to take charge.

“We are very, very weak,” Mr Dutta said. “There is pain all over our bodies. The men complain of pain in their legs, neck, of constant headaches and skin diseases. Two men have been sick.

“We have nothing, they [the pirates] seized everything – they took our clothes, money, laptops, mobiles, videos, everything. Now we are all ready to go home. That is all we can think about.”

The ship was spotted on Friday, 20 nautical miles off Somalia’s northern coast, by the European Union Naval Force (EU Navfor) flagship Mendez Nunez on counter-piracy patrols.

The skipper confirmed by radio that the pirates had left and his crew required food, water and medical aid. A team from the Mendez Nunez treated two sailors.

None of the sailors was dehydrated or starving, but they were in very poor condition hygiene-wise, said Rear Admiral Pedro Ángel García de Paredes Pérez de Sevilla, the force commander on the Mendez Nunez.

The Rayo, an  EU Navfor warship, then escorted the tanker to Oman.

A Nigerian sailor died soon after the hijacking, because he ran out of medicine for an existing condition, relatives of hostages have said.

In India yesterday, relatives made offerings at temples in preparation for the sailors’ return. The men have spoken to their families since their release.

“My mother was always in the temple after my brother’s ship was captured; she walked barefoot to the temple for 2km for prayer ceremonies,” said Monisha Mohan, from her home in Chadayamanagalam village in Kerala. Her younger brother, Manesh, was on a training stint as a cadet on the Royal Grace.

“My family was in deep crisis. We couldn’t eat food or live normally. We were always in tears.”

Mrs Mohan’s father, Mohanan Pillay, said: “Now the world has changed for us; for one year we were in tension, we were scared, now it’s just happiness.”

Since September, relatives have repeatedly demonstrated in New Delhi, demanding information about the hostages and state intervention to ensure the shipping company freed them.

The protests began after the pirates called several relatives, warning that the crew would be shot if the ransom was not delivered.

Relatives said the pirates had demanded US$1.7 million (Dh6.2m), – a low figure, according to experts. The average ransom in 2011 was about $5m, up from $4m a year earlier, according to the advocacy group One Earth Future Foundation.

Dino Davis, whose brother Dipin was one of the freed hostages, said he hoped his parents’ protests had helped.

“It’s as if we have not been living for a year,” he said. “We have not celebrated festivals or birthdays because of the tension.”

Sharmishta Dutta, the daughter of the ship’s captain, does not want her 61-year-old father to sail again.

“I’m sure he will want to go out to sea, but I won’t allow him to,” she said from Bangalore. “I will celebrate only after I see him. That is all I’m waiting for.”

rtalwar@thenational.ae