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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Piracy ~ MV Asphalt Venture .... 4 years on, Indian still held hostage !!

Way back in May 2011, I had posted about piracy and MV Asphalt Venture  -  vessel MT  Asphalt Venture (Panama flag; 2,884 DWT; Emirates operated; crew of 15) was hijacked on 28 September 2010 and had been released by then, after payment of ransom. 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.

Those who travel by sea are poor cousins of those who do by air~ whilst an hijack of an aircraft would hit the headlines and international attention straightaway – the news of ship piracy might find place in some obscure corner.  Kadal Kollaiar (Sea pirates) would often be portrayed in old movies as people with masks, paints all over body with crude arms, jumping into boats, killing people on board and usurping all wealth that was carried as merchandise.  Maritime piracy, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982, consists of any criminal acts of violence, detention, or depredation committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or aircraft that is directed on the high seas against another ship, aircraft, or against persons or property on board a ship or aircraft.

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. Their crimes range from simple theft to stealing entire ships and murder. At a time when large contingent of troops were monitoring, it might have appeared that sea routes were safe – no so, as was found by the owners of MT Asphalt Venture – which was captured, owners reportedly paid ranson – but  the pirates went back on their words ! and released only 8  crew members holding back 7l reportedly demanding that India release the pirates whom Indian Navy had captured. There were also reports that the captors were not satisfied with the alleged  $3.5 million ransom payment. Clearly that was a marked deviation from the unwritten protocol that all crew members  be released when the agreed ransom was paid. The lawless mercenaries are ruthless. Some in shipping industry expressed their frustration; 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.”

The Indian Government had been stating that safety of the seven Indian sailors was top priority; there had been calls for launch of a military offensive – however it was feared that military intervention would risk lives of hostages. Those who read the news would have forgotten everything about … certainly not the family of those victims.
Now TOI reports that 4 years on, no freedom is in sight as they still languish in the custody of pirates. The seafarers belong to Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Kerala. It has been a long struggle for parents of L Daniston of Tuticorin district, one of the hostages. They have held several agitations and staged fasts along with villagers of Punnakkayal, but in vain. “As many as four collectors have changed during this period, and we have met leaders like former shipping minister GK Vasan and DMK's M K Stalin, and sent petitions to the CM's cell, but nothing came out of it,“ said Litton, Daniston father. Buoyed by news of nurses being freed by ISIS militants of Iraq, he and his wife approached state ministers K A Jayapal and O Panneerselvam in the last two days to seek help.

Representatives of OMCI, which managed the vessel until 2011, said they were constantly in touch with the office of the directorate general of shipping. “But nothing has come out of it,“ says Captain Nitin Dhage, chief operating officer, OMCI. “The Union government remains extremely concerned and is doing whatever is possible within the framework of the limited leverages that it has,“ was all a senior official in the ministry had to say. In another recent report that appeared in TOI, it was stated that the Centre informed the Supreme Court that Somali pirates were still holding seven Indian seafarers as hostage and that it was holding extensive talks with the new Somali regime as well as neighbours of the terror ravaged country to seek their early release. In an affidavit, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) said Panama merchant vessel 'Asphalt Venture', with 15 Indian crew members, was hijacked by Somali pirates on September 29, 2010. The ship, along with eight Indians, was released on April 16, 2011, but the pirates kept seven as hostage.  These crew continue to be under custody of Somali pirates - reportedly held ashore at an unknown location in Somalia and it is stated that of the two Indian crew members on hijacked merchant vessel 'Albedo', one died in the custody of the pirates and the other, Aman Kumar Sharma, was released on June 6 this year.

To deal with kidnapping of seafarers on hijacked ships by Somali pirates, the Centre said it has set up an Inter-Ministerial Group of officers under the ministry of shipping headed by the additional secretary. "IMG has members representing all concerned ministries and agencies and meets regularly to deal with the situation of Indian hostages who are in captivity of Somali pirates," it said. With the new political dispensation in Somalia, in the process of taking effective control of the geographical extent of the country, things continue to be murkier for the victims.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

10th July 2014.

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