x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hostage talks in Dubai with pirates' tribal elders

A security team is meeting with Somali leaders in Dubai over the fate of 22 hostages held by pirates aboard the MV Albedo.

A recent picture of the children of the ship's chief officer, Mujtaba. From left to right: Salva, 7, Bhaktavar, 5, Hira 8, and 15-month-old Mohammed Abdullah who has never seen his father.
A recent picture of the children of the ship's chief officer, Mujtaba. From left to right: Salva, 7, Bhaktavar, 5, Hira 8, and 15-month-old Mohammed Abdullah who has never seen his father.

DUBAI // A security team from Malaysia will arrive in Dubai today to begin talks with Somali tribal leaders, seeking to break the impasse in talks between Somali pirates and the families of 22 hostages on the MV Albedo.

The talks are aimed at seeking assistance from influential Somali leaders to have the hostages released.

The crewmen have been held captive off the coast of Somalia for the past 19 months. Their cargo vessel was seized in November 2010 in the Gulf of Aden after setting sail for Kenya from Jebel Ali.

Representatives of the Malaysian-based ship owner Omid Khosrojerdi and clan elders from Somalia will arrive in Dubai today, a source involved in the talks said.

"The Malaysian team is a professional security team appointed by the owner and they will handle negotiations with the pirates," he said.

"The elders, the clan leaders, are coming via Kenya for the meeting. They are not part of the pirates or the piracy network, but can help us try to solve any problems.

"We are trying our best to handle everything, speak closely and directly to the elders, and finalise all arrangements."

He would not give details of the probable release date of the crew and ship, or when the ransom amount of US$2.85 million (Dh10.4m) would be paid to the Somali raiders.

At issue are how and when the pirates will receive the money, free the hostages and release the ship.

Seven Pakistanis, seven Bangladeshi, six Sri Lankans, an Indian and an Iranian are being held on the ship.

One Indian sailor died due to lack of medicine.

A group of philanthropists, businessmen and relatives from Pakistan announced on May 15 that they had raised part of the ransom.

The pirates had initially set a deadline of April 26, but three deadlines were missed due to shortfalls in collection.

Mr Khosrojerdi had agreed to raise at least half of the ransom.

The pirates had initially demanded $10m as, but that was reduced after the first round of talks in Dubai with Somali tribal leaders in March.

Relatives of hostages in Pakistan and Sri Lanka say they have repeatedly received threatening calls from the pirates, warning they would beat and starve the hostages until the ransom was delivered.

In recent phone calls made to family members, the hostages said seven crew members were taken ashore by the pirates.

"The men are desperate because there is no place for them to sleep on shore, no proper food and they are forced to work in the sun," said Ahmed Chinoy, the chairman of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee in Karachi, who helped relatives to raise funds and aided negotiations.

Mr Chinoy said among the crew members taken ashore were the ship's captain, the chief officer and the third officer.

"Maybe the pirates fear the vessel may be attacked by security forces and so have split up the crew," he said. "We hope the meeting will help patch things up with the pirates.

"The Malaysians are trying their best. The Somali tribal leaders have good connections with pirate groups.

"It may help to pacify the pirates through the tribal leaders. Everyone is trying their best to free the men and release the ship."

But relatives worry that time is running out.

"When my husband calls, he says the pirates threaten them, saying they will cut them up and throw them in the jungle," said Neelam Mujtaba, the wife of the MV Albedo's chief officer, Mujtaba.

A nationally televised appeal last month by the couple's daughter Hira, 8, spurred collection efforts.

"It is frightening," said Mrs Mujtaba. "How much longer will they suffer? We appeal to whoever can offer any help to come forward.

"What is the fault of these men or of our children who wait to see their fathers? We are all very disturbed. All we do is pray they will be safe."

rtalwar@thenational.ae