The government on Thursday said it would do everything possible to secure the release of Indian sailors held hostage by Somali pirates but restraint had to be exercised as any emotive response could endanger their lives.
Responding to concerns expressed during zero hour in the Rajya Sabha, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna cautioned members against “getting worked up, excited or emotive.”
To S.S. Ahluwalia's (BJP) query whether India would send its forces to get the hostages released, Mr. Krishna said when the Americans tried to carry out an assault on pirates, all four hostages were killed. (An earlier French rescue attempt led to the death of one hostage. In both cases the vessels were small sailboats flying the U.S. and French flags).
“Let us be very objective in our assessment of the situation. We cannot afford to put the lives of Indian sailors held hostage in jeopardy. So, we will have to be restrained.” At the same time, India would vigorously pursue its efforts through back channels and ship owners. “That is the only way we can operate. There cannot be any time limit fixed for this objective.”
Mr. Krishna agreed with M. Venkaiah Naidu (BJP) that payment of ransom could be one of the components of negotiations. Noting that continued captivity of the remaining people was ‘disturbing and serious', Mr. Krishna said the owners of m.v. Suez were engaged in negotiations with the pirates.
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao clarified that it was an Italian naval ship and not a Spanish vessel that picked up the 11 Indians released by the pirates.
The Foreign Office said that with the release of m.v. Rak Afrikana seamen, the number of Indian sailors being held by Somali pirates was 53. They were captured during the seizure of five ships — Iceberg, Suez, Asphalt Venture and Sinin (all with Panamanian flags) and Savina Caylyn (Italian flag).
While precautions had been taken and advisories issued to merchant vessels, “it is also necessary for flag states to be accountable and persuade the ship owners to expedite conclusion of negotiations with pirates so that seafarers are released quickly.”
The External Affairs Ministry pointed out that 21 Indians held on merchant ships were released in 2008, 34 in 2009, 56 in 2010 and 13 this year, bringing the total number of Indian sailors released to 124. In most cases, the hijacked ships had crew members of other nationalities also. For instance, Iceberg had nine Yemenis, six Indians, one Filipino, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese and two Pakistanis. Suez has six Indians, 11 Egyptians, four Pakistanis and one Sri Lankan, all held by pirates.
In the case of all the five ships, Indian missions and posts had been in regular touch with ship owners and governments where they were based at to get Indians released.
Senior BJP leaders met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Speaker Meira Kumar and sought immediate steps to secure the early release of sailors.
Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, her counterpart in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley and Deputy Leader of the BJP in the Upper House S.S. Ahluwalia met Dr. Singh along with the family members of the sailors.
Sharing their anguish, the Prime Minister assured them that the government would do whatever was feasible for the safe return of the sailors, sources said.