The 22 crew members, including five Indians, who were freed from the clutches of Somali pirates after a 12-day operation have been taken to a city in northeast Somalia ahead of their departure for their home countries. “The rescued sailors are in high spirits and they have taken to Garoowe, the capital of Puntland,” said Abdrirashid Abbas Ali, the coordinator of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), which carried out the rescue.

In a conversation with The Hindu, Mr. Ali said that Somali and Indian authorities are already in touch and arrangements will be made soon to send the freed hostages home from a location in Puntland. Diplomatic sources said that transit arrangements are yet to be finalised, but it is possible that Indian crew members would pass through the Omani port of Salalah.

The rescue has ended a 32-month ordeal, which began when pirates seized the Dubai-owned and Panama registered vessel, MV Iceberg-1 in the Gulf of Aden. The ship was then heading towards Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port. For nearly three years, the ship was languishing in Somalia’s Mudong region. Apart from the Indians, the rescued crew members include eight Yemenis, two Pakistanis, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese and a Filipino.

Despite the all-round euphoria that the rescue has generated, the family of Dhiraj Tiwari continues to remain in distress as the 27-year old chief officer of the ship is not among those who have been freed. Media reports suggest that Mr. Tiwari had gone missing more than a year ago. Rescuers also did not find aboard a Yemeni national, who was the chief engineer of the ship.

Mr. Ali said that the rescue by PMPF began on December 10 and concluded on Saturday. At first the PMPF tried a direct rescue attempt, but, subsequently, the pirated ship was blockaded and kept under active aerial surveillance. During the siege, three pirates were killed and another three captured as they attempted to smuggle in weapons to the pirates aboard the ship. Four others managed to escape. MV Iceberg-1 is owned by Azal Shipping Company, and the company’s owner is a Yemeni national.

Local media in the UAE is reporting the traumatic experience of the sailors during their prolonged captivity. Khaleej Times is quoting Swapnil Jadhav, one of the rescued crew member as saying: “We thought the world had forgotten us as nobody was enquiring about us for a long time.” Mr. Jhadav said that there were times when the sailors would be deprived food for nearly a week. The psychological trauma was intense as their captors would often taunt the crew that they would die on the ship. Morale dipped particular after last year’s incident when the ship owner declined to meet the enhanced ransom demand of the pirates, a diplomatic source said.

Analysts say that the rescue could deter the piracy, which is already showing a declining trend in the area. Around 120 seafarers are still held by Somali pirates, but this number is far lower than the 600 who were held hostage two years ago. The rescue is a feather-in-the-cap for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has funded the PMPF. The organisation was formed after the United Nations Security Council called for the creation of a local force with comprehensive legal and policing capabilities.


Indian sailors held by pirates freed January 26, 2013