x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pirates make threatening calls to families of Dubai tanker crew

Relatives of hostages aboard the Dubai-owned tanker Royal Grace say they have begun receiving threatening telephone calls.

DUBAI // Somali pirates have resumed making threatening telephone calls to the relatives of 22 crew they are holding hostage aboard a hijacked tanker.

The calls threatening to kill the hostages had ceased on November 30, the deadline for payment of a Dh6 million ransom for the crew of the Dubai-owned MT Royal Grace.

But this week they began again, a grim reminder of the brutality the 22 men have suffered since their empty chemical tanker was hijacked in March off the coast of Oman.

"The pirates put the men on speaker and I could hear them crying," said Mohan, whose son is among the hostages.

"For so long there were no calls so we didn't know if they were alive. Now if we get a phone call we have some hope he is alive. But then we heard the cries. He said they were bound and not being given food or water. We are tense every time the phone rings."

The Royal Grace was hijacked on March 2 after it set sail from Sharjah for Nigeria. The pirates have demanded Dh6 million to free the crew of 17 Indians, three Nigerians, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi.

A Nigerian sailor has already died because of a lack of medication.

The tanker is registered to the Dubai company Oyster Cargo and Shipping, which is owned by a Nigerian businessman. Relatives have been unable to reach the owners to ask about negotiations, and independent attempts to contact the company were also unsuccessful.

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

Another Dubai-owned ship, the MV Iceberg 1, with 23 crew, has been held for 32 months, longer than any other vessel.

Delegates at a global maritime conference in Dubai last month were shown photographs of crew members bound with ropes and scarred with burns and gashes.

Pottendal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, urged governments and ship owners not to abandon the hostages, who were traumatised by their ordeal.

With the aim of keeping the authorities focused on the plight of their captured relatives, more than 20 parents and siblings of the Royal Grace hostages from across India are staying in India’s capital, New Delhi, for a month. They want the federal government to explain what steps are being taken to free the men.

Dino, the brother of one of the hostages, received a nerve-racking phone call from Somalia while his parents were in Delhi.

"We couldn't hear any voices, there was a lot of disturbance and noise," he said. "I don't know if it's a good thing that we couldn't hear because it may just mean they are giving them more pain. My parents plan to stay in Delhi until they get some answers."

The group meets officials of the foreign, external affairs and shipping ministries every day for more information about the hostages.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, promised this week that his government would explore all avenues to release Indian hostages being held by Somali pirates.

While officials have restated the government's position that they cannot get involved in ransom negotiations, the ministries of shipping and external affairs also held joint meetings this week to coordinate information about the hostages.

"Our families go daily knocking on doors hoping someone will listen to us," said the sister of a hostage, who did not want to be named. "They meet ministers and officials so people will not forget about the Royal Grace."

rtalwar@thenational.ae