By Steve A. Morrell
Of the 52 Sri Lankan seafarers held captive by Somali pirates over the past year or so, some were released from time to time, but the exact number held by these armed men at present is still not known, it was revealed last week.
In the latest raid on a cargo vessel, six more Sri Lankan were captured off the Somali coast, but their ship had taken in water during the raid and run aground. The men remain unaccounted for with their fate still unknown, the National Union of Sea Farers, Sri Lanka (NUSS) said.
The pirates were demanding millions of dollars in ransom essentially from shipping companies owning and operating cargo vessels, Secretary, NUSS, Palitha Atukorale told a news conference.
He said that there are around 15,000 Sri Lankan seafarers employed aboard ships operated by various shipping agencies operating from Colombo.
These pirates have not been controlled by the government of Somalia and subject to this lax situation of tacit dysfunction of law and order, piracy abounds on the high seas off Somalia, he noted.
Secretary Shipping Agencies in Sri Lanka, Chirat Bari said the plight of Sri Lankan seafarers is serious issue which demands official attention. “As much as Sri Lanka is affected so are India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan”.
Asked by the media on official intervention, Atukorale said there are official negotiations with shipping companies, but as a matter of principle, the government did not negotiate with pirates or terrorists, and did not even consider demands for ransom payments.Roy Paul, Director, of the London-based Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHEP), said his organization is assisting seafarers‚Äô families in Sri Lanka with basic assistance for a limited period. Such assistance would end March 2014.
He also said piracy increased over the past year or so and there are now about 5,000 seafarers held captive. They were robbed of their personal belongings and demands were being made for cash ransoms of at least one million dollars for the crew of each vessel captured by them. Some shipping companies closed down their businesses and left without trace immediately after their ships were attacked.
Asked on availability of technological surveillance and use of satellites for such action, Paul said the US government had used such inputs and freed their hostages. But such action was restricted only to American citizens, he noted.
He said his organization did not have the clout to request such official action.
Some of he families affected were also present, but the press did not have access to them for interview. Families were being helped with a monthly payment of about Rs. 25,000.
Shipping and cargo handled by these vessels comprise about 95% of the world‚Äôs goods in transit.
Asked whether there is a solution to this problem, Paul replied, “It has to gain the attention of the UN if a solution is to be found”.
A harbor worker present at the news conference said he had suffered a heart attack at work, but because of the indifference of those in charge and delayed medical attention, he is now partially paralyzed.