Wednesday, May 4, 2011

sad plight of MT Asphalt Venture and the ugly face of Piracy

The course of law may be long and winding but seemingly justice would be delivered – as was realized recently.  The sea is the most difficult to fathom and holds out wealth and hazards to the sea farer.  Piracy is perhaps as old as seafaring but had never been so serious as of date.  The modern day pirates use state-of-the-art weapons instead of cutlasses and canons. They comb coastal waters in high-speed boats and operate  from approving land and from the highseas  from motherships. Their crimes range from simple theft to stealing entire ships and murder.  There were times when only smaller vessels were attacked, but they seize large cargo carriers, bulk carriers, cruise liners and crude tankers.  The threat differs from vessel to vessel.   Initially they only plundered the captive vessel taking whatever cash or useful cargo was available but now they have more lucrative demands -  millions of dollars of ransom money in exchange of the captive crew and the captured vessel.  


Intertanko was delighted as tanker Irene SL with 2m barrel oil was released  by the Somali pirates and that Master, officers and crew were in good health after 58 days in captivity.  It was a big crisis as the  crude oil cargo laden  represented 20% of total U.S. daily crude oil imports, or 5% of total daily world seaborne oil supply.  Not all are so lucky.  The systematic outreach across the Indian Ocean only means that there is no alternate route for the 17 M barrels of oil a day that comes out of the Gulf and close to 40% of the World’s oil supplies have to pass through the Indian Ocean according to Interntanko press release.


Even when large contingent of troops were monitoring, the owners felt hopeless and started playing in to their hands paying the amount demanded.  Even that is not safe and smooth as was found by the owners of MT Asphalt Venture -  after receiving the specified ransom in mid April 2011, the pirates went back on their words ! and released only 8  crew members holding back 7.  As a new trade-off, they demanded that India release the pirates whom the Indian Navy had arrested. MT Asphalt Venture was released on 15 April 2011 and the negotiations were actually for the full release of all 15 member crew. 


It was reported that Somali pirates had refused to free Indian crew wanting their men to be released as a trade-off.  Somalis reportedly were angry since many weeks and also mistreated especially Indian seamen on other hostage ships due to this situation. There were also reports that the captors were not satisfied with the alleged  $3.5 million ransom payment.   Clearly this marks a deviation from the unwritten protocol that all crew members  be released when the agreed ransom was paid.   It adds another measure of ruthlessness and cruelty of the lawless operators.  Apart from the human dimension, Indian trade and economic interests are being adversely impacted due to the spread of piracy in the Indian Ocean.  There is need for some stern measures giving the lives of the hostages the due importance.  
There was a sigh of relief when officials could establish contact with those held captive knowing of their  well-being.  The owners of Asphalt Venture hurriedly went back to the negotiators seeking fresh channel of dialogue.   This certainly is grueling as the vessel was captured way back on Sept 28, 2010.  Those connected with Shipping industry are sour.  The International Chamber of Shipping, ITF, Indian National Shipowners’ Association, NUSI, MUI, IMEC, InterManager, Intertanko and BIMCO issued a statement calling this “a fundamental change to previous practice” which moved the issue from being “just between the shipowner and the pirates to being between the pirates and a government.” 


There is point in the query of seafarer on whether the World and Govts would react the same way if  747 jumbo jet  with hundreds on board is hijacked ?   There are reports that  Worldwide, during the first three months of 2011, pirates murdered seven crew members and injured 34. Eighteen vessels were hijacked and 344 crew members taken hostage, with a further 45 vessels boarded and 45 more were fired upon.   Asphalt Venture is not a stray incident, there are close 100 sailors languishing in custody of Somali Pirates.  


Recently in the Indian Lok Sabha  Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj raised the issue during Zero Hour, following which External Affairs Minister S M Krishna assured the House that the government was doing everything possible for their release. Not satisfied with the response,  the opposition staged a walkout and members charged that the government was showing "helplessness" in the matter. The maritime Unions feel left out and left to fend for themselves international naval force.  The Unions called on the Govt. to step up its efforts to combat piracy by lobbying  at the United Nations.


During Sept,  NATO at that time had reported that the weather was favourable  for the pirates  in the Arabian Sea and southern Somali Basin as the effects of the southwest monsoon abate.  Pirate groups reportedly were using pirated dhows and fishing vessels including a Taiwanese fishing vessel captured at that time.   It was also reported that a vessel  in the open ocean more than 300Nm from the Somali coast should be considered to be a potential pirate vessel.  The vessel MT  Asphalt Venture (Panama flag; 2,884 DWT; Emirates operated; crew of 15) was hijacked on 28 September 2010. The ship was under way from Durban to Mombasa in ballast when hijacked about 100 nautical miles off the coast of Tanzania  in position 07 07S 041 02E.

The much touted UN and Western powers have failed  to stabilise Somalia  and control piracy in the region which as soared.  The pirates were extending their reach and moved south of the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean was also becoming unsafe.  This year,   Indian Navy and Coast Guard  arrested 43 Somali pirates after gunbattles with them foiled their plans to hijack ships off Lakshadweep. While 15 pirates arrested in the first incident on January 28 and brought to Mumbai another 28 were held on Feb 6.   

It was reported that  Indian Navy has sent a naval warship to the Gulf of Aden near the Somali coast to secure their release and protect the hijacked vessel the MV Asphalt Venture from further attacks. This was done after the pirates backed on their deal.   The Indian Govt. stated that the safety of the seven Indian sailors was top priority and any attempted offensive to rescue all 54 Indians held on six different ships was considered not so feasible.    There has been pressure for launch of a military offensive but the foremost concern in launching such an offensive is collateral damage, said sources. A military intervention would risk lives of hostages who are not Indians alone. With other nationalities involved, the government will have to take other countries into confidence.

Till then, it is painful living and hope against odds  for the families of those being held captive.

Regards – S. Sampathkumar

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