Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

Pirates ordered hostages to say final goodbyes to family

The hostages, who were on board a UAE-managed tanker, were given less than a minute to say ‘final goodbyes’ to relatives in Sri Lanka last week during an exchange of fire with Puntland counter piracy forces off Somalia’s north-eastern coast.
Samudra Hettarachchi, in pink, told of the awful phone call she received from her husband saying his final goodbyes and not knowing if he would be alive a minute later. Rukmal Gamage/ AP Photo
Samudra Hettarachchi, in pink, told of the awful phone call she received from her husband saying his final goodbyes and not knowing if he would be alive a minute later. Rukmal Gamage/ AP Photo

DUBAI // The woman whose sailor husband was taken hostage by Somali pirates said he and the rest of his crew were forced to call home to speak to their families “for the last time”.

The hostages, who were on board a UAE-managed tanker, were given less than a minute to say “final goodbyes” to relatives in Sri Lanka last week during an exchange of fire with Puntland counter piracy forces off Somalia’s north-eastern coast.

The eight Sri Lankan crewmen aboard the tanker Aris 13 are recovering in Bosaso port in Puntland after a four-day ordeal that ended with a rescue by the Puntland Maritime Police Force on Thursday.

“I could hear the firing and my husband was crying loudly. I have never heard him like that. He said it was his last call and asked me to take care of our daughter,” said Samudra Hettarachchi, in Colombo.

“I did not know what to think because in another minute I would not know if he is alive or not. I said, ‘Do not worry, you are coming back to Sri Lanka’. Then the telephone was disconnected and I tried to call anyone to free them.”

The call from her husband Sunil Bulathsinhala came two days into the hijacking after news of the March 13 attack was broadcast across the world.

Relatives of other hostages received phone calls asking them to contact government, port authorities to stop the exchange of fire.

The crewmen called on Friday with news of their rescue.

The hijacking of the South African-owned oil tanker en route from Djibouti to Mogadishu ended a five-year lull in piracy attacks off Somalia’s coast.

There have been no successful hijackings since the crude oil tanker Smyrni in May 2012, pirates continue to attempt to seize vessels.

A 75-strong team from the Puntland Maritime Police Force and 25 from the Bosaso Port Police blocked arms supplies to 30 pirates on board the Aris 13, said Saeed Rageh, minister for ports and counter-piracy of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia.

“We surrounded them with our forces on land and sea. Our priority was to rescue the crew. After two days of trying to supply the ship with new pirates and more ammunition, they could not get more guns.

“We had four skiffs and one large ship with supplies and they were in a bay and could not come out. They tried many times to pressure the captain to sail out and we fired after giving them some time to surrender.”

Appealing to the international community for support against renewed incidents, he said attacks would continue because of drought and unemployment in Somalia.

Chirag Bahri, regional director, South Asia, for the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network, said relatives had reached out for help.

“They were very anxious and nervous when Puntland forces attacked. We tried to calm them and explain that the aim was not to harm but to rescue the hostages. But it was frightening when they heard the firing and then didn’t know if the men were alive. It was a tense time for seafarers and their families.”

The sailors who began their contract in Dubai in January have been told they will be sent home to recover and will be replaced by another crew.

Calls and emails to the UAE-based company were not returned.

Mrs Hettarachchi hopes her husband will never venture near the danger zone again.

“We are happy now but for days we were thinking of the end and how we would manage the rest of life. I never want him to go near Somalia ever again. Until they reach Colombo airport and we see them, we cannot rest.”

rtalwar@thenational.ae

Updated: March 19, 2017 04:00 AM

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