As Hostages Await Release, Seamen Suggest 'Role For India'

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New Delhi, Oct 5 (UNI) Relatives and friends held a candle light vigil last night drawing attention to the plight of 22 seafarers-- 18 of them Indian-- being held hostage by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden over the past twenty days.

''For the past few days,'' said Seema Goyal, wife of Chemical tanker Stolt Valor Captain Prabhat Goyal, ''they have been given a little of rice and boiled potato.'' She was describing the conditions in which the seamen are being kept by their captors who demanded million-- subsequently pared down to New Delhi, Oct 5 (UNI) Relatives and friends held a candle light vigil last night drawing attention to the plight of 22 seafarers-- 18 of them Indian-- being held hostage by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden over the past twenty days.

''For the past few days,'' said Seema Goyal, wife of Chemical tanker Stolt Valor Captain Prabhat Goyal, ''they have been given a little of rice and boiled potato.'' She was describing the conditions in which the seamen are being kept by their captors who demanded $6 million-- subsequently pared down to $2 million-- for letting the tanker sail.

But a statement by the ship's Japanese owners handed out at the vigil quoted the Captain as having reported on Friday-- October 3-- that ''all crew members were safe (and) there were no injuries.'' The Japanese-owned tanker flying the Hong Kong flag and manned by a crew of 22 was on way to Mumbai from Houston in the United States when it was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden on September 15.

The tanker is carrying phosphoric acid and lubricant oil for end-users, including Kandla-based Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited.' Besides 18 Indians, the crew includes a Russian, a Bangladeshi and two Filipinos.

Mrs Goyal and other members of the group have been meeting Indian authorities-- ministers, senior bureaucrats, politicians-- to bring home the urgency of securing the sailors' release.

''I only want to know what is being done. What is going on,'' she said as she and other participants held the vigil near Jantar Mantar, just off the Capital's Parliament Street.

''These 22 sailors are living under the shadow of guns with constant threat to their lives, and look upon the government of India as their last hope.'' Experts say much of the initiative in the matter rests with authorities in Hong Kong, where the ship is registered, or Japan, where the owners belong.

One idea being pursued is Indian authorities sending a 'neutral observer' to the ongoing negotiations between the Japanese owners and the hijackers, Mrs Goyal disclosed.

But wth a number of merchant naval officers taking part in the vigil last night, the talk turned inevitably to a situation many of them face at sea.

Although Indians constitute a bulk of seamen-- more than a half, one said-- on merchant ships of various nationalities, and the Indian government licenses recruiters on Indian soil, recruits get little protection.

They pointed out how Americans, British and French, for instance, have formed a coalition to work a ''safe'' corridor in the area and suggested similar effort by Indian forces.

An Indian coastal presence or participation will not only ''boost our spirits,'' it would at the same time deter trouble-makers, Captain Mukul Attri told United News of India Special Correspondent Mukesh Jhangiani.

Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1958, the Director General of Shipping, who licenses recruiters of Indian seamen and officers, is also responsible for recruits' welfare, experts say.

As many as 55 ships have been attacked off the coast of Somalia since January and 11 were still being held for ransom, published accounts indicate.

The International Maritime Bureau has issued an advisory urging ships to stay 250 Nautical Miles away from the Somali coast.

Another set of pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter carrying tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition claimed this week they are more ''like a coast guard.'' A New York Daily quoted a spokesman for the pirates as saying they have been misundestood by the world.

The New York Times quoted spokesman Sugule Ali as saying, ''we don't consider ourselves sea bandits.

''We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.'' Such remarks, experts say, stray into ''grey areas'' of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention to which India is a party.

Even the International Criminal Court appears to offer no remedy against piracy.

On the other hand, the statement by Stolt Valor's Japanese owners cited expert opinion that ''Somali hijackers are now using 'terror tactics'.'' It also contained word that the pirates ''are using'' such tactics as having crew members exaggerate hardships on board to cause worry to families.

The statement appeared to confirm Mrs Goyal's account three days ago that the Somali pirates were forcing some of 22 hostages to call home to pressure the ship owners on ransom.

It said the ''owners continue to maintain contact with the vessel on a regular basis and are making every effort to secure the safe release of the crew'' and have kept governments posted.

It discounted ideas of a rescue action, citing an unnamed British expert that ''for every successful rescue attempt, many more are unsuccesssful and result in dead hostages.'' It said ''the best hope for a safe resolution to the Stolt Valor crisis is by calm communication, rather than aggressive military action.'' Over the past few days, Mrs Goyal and her group has met Shipping Minister T R Baalu and External Affairs Minister of State Anand Sharma and senior officers of the Ministries and All India Congress Committee general secretary Rahul Gandhi.

Baalu and others have assured her that ''every effort'' would be made to secure release of the hostages.

Mrs Goyal says her husband and crew members have been in touch with her from the ship's bridge, presumably using a satellite phone.

Differing accounts and interpretations contribute to relatives' anxieties.

On Tuesday, the 18 Indian seafarers were reported to be running short of water and rations.

She said a crew member called her and ''said they will be out of fresh water in a day or two, and rations, in another 3-4 days.'' She said ''we were told'' by the representatives of the ship owners and the manning company that delivery of fresh water and medicine to the hostages was being arranged. But Captain Goyal told her nothing had arrived,'' she said.

The ship owners' statement said that ''some crew members who had been feeling unwell... received medicine on board.'' Rashmi Sood, who attended a call from a crew member aboard the ship whose wife is in hospital, said his words were not coherent but the desperation was most pronounced.

''Bring an end to the ordeal of these innocent seafarers,'' Mrs Goyal urged in a petition to Baalu.

During a televised interview, the relatives and friends of the Indian hostages urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to hear them for just ''a few minutes.'' UNI MJ RP KN1352 million-- for letting the tanker sail.

But a statement by the ship's Japanese owners handed out at the vigil quoted the Captain as having reported on Friday-- October 3-- that ''all crew members were safe (and) there were no injuries.'' The Japanese-owned tanker flying the Hong Kong flag and manned by a crew of 22 was on way to Mumbai from Houston in the United States when it was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden on September 15.

The tanker is carrying phosphoric acid and lubricant oil for end-users, including Kandla-based Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited.' Besides 18 Indians, the crew includes a Russian, a Bangladeshi and two Filipinos.

Mrs Goyal and other members of the group have been meeting Indian authorities-- ministers, senior bureaucrats, politicians-- to bring home the urgency of securing the sailors' release.

''I only want to know what is being done. What is going on,'' she said as she and other participants held the vigil near Jantar Mantar, just off the Capital's Parliament Street.

''These 22 sailors are living under the shadow of guns with constant threat to their lives, and look upon the government of India as their last hope.'' Experts say much of the initiative in the matter rests with authorities in Hong Kong, where the ship is registered, or Japan, where the owners belong.

One idea being pursued is Indian authorities sending a 'neutral observer' to the ongoing negotiations between the Japanese owners and the hijackers, Mrs Goyal disclosed.

But wth a number of merchant naval officers taking part in the vigil last night, the talk turned inevitably to a situation many of them face at sea.

Although Indians constitute a bulk of seamen-- more than a half, one said-- on merchant ships of various nationalities, and the Indian government licenses recruiters on Indian soil, recruits get little protection.

They pointed out how Americans, British and French, for instance, have formed a coalition to work a ''safe'' corridor in the area and suggested similar effort by Indian forces.

An Indian coastal presence or participation will not only ''boost our spirits,'' it would at the same time deter trouble-makers, Captain Mukul Attri told United News of India Special Correspondent Mukesh Jhangiani.

Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1958, the Director General of Shipping, who licenses recruiters of Indian seamen and officers, is also responsible for recruits' welfare, experts say.

As many as 55 ships have been attacked off the coast of Somalia since January and 11 were still being held for ransom, published accounts indicate.

The International Maritime Bureau has issued an advisory urging ships to stay 250 Nautical Miles away from the Somali coast.

Another set of pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter carrying tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition claimed this week they are more ''like a coast guard.'' A New York Daily quoted a spokesman for the pirates as saying they have been misundestood by the world.

The New York Times quoted spokesman Sugule Ali as saying, ''we don't consider ourselves sea bandits.

''We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.'' Such remarks, experts say, stray into ''grey areas'' of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention to which India is a party.

Even the International Criminal Court appears to offer no remedy against piracy.

On the other hand, the statement by Stolt Valor's Japanese owners cited expert opinion that ''Somali hijackers are now using 'terror tactics'.'' It also contained word that the pirates ''are using'' such tactics as having crew members exaggerate hardships on board to cause worry to families.

The statement appeared to confirm Mrs Goyal's account three days ago that the Somali pirates were forcing some of 22 hostages to call home to pressure the ship owners on ransom.

It said the ''owners continue to maintain contact with the vessel on a regular basis and are making every effort to secure the safe release of the crew'' and have kept governments posted.

It discounted ideas of a rescue action, citing an unnamed British expert that ''for every successful rescue attempt, many more are unsuccesssful and result in dead hostages.'' It said ''the best hope for a safe resolution to the Stolt Valor crisis is by calm communication, rather than aggressive military action.'' Over the past few days, Mrs Goyal and her group has met Shipping Minister T R Baalu and External Affairs Minister of State Anand Sharma and senior officers of the Ministries and All India Congress Committee general secretary Rahul Gandhi.

Baalu and others have assured her that ''every effort'' would be made to secure release of the hostages.

Mrs Goyal says her husband and crew members have been in touch with her from the ship's bridge, presumably using a satellite phone.

Differing accounts and interpretations contribute to relatives' anxieties.

On Tuesday, the 18 Indian seafarers were reported to be running short of water and rations.

She said a crew member called her and ''said they will be out of fresh water in a day or two, and rations, in another 3-4 days.'' She said ''we were told'' by the representatives of the ship owners and the manning company that delivery of fresh water and medicine to the hostages was being arranged. But Captain Goyal told her nothing had arrived,'' she said.

The ship owners' statement said that ''some crew members who had been feeling unwell... received medicine on board.'' Rashmi Sood, who attended a call from a crew member aboard the ship whose wife is in hospital, said his words were not coherent but the desperation was most pronounced.

''Bring an end to the ordeal of these innocent seafarers,'' Mrs Goyal urged in a petition to Baalu.

During a televised interview, the relatives and friends of the Indian hostages urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to hear them for just ''a few minutes.'' UNI MJ RP KN1352

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