Families seek release of sailors

Family members of six Sri Lankan sailors who are still being held hostage aboard the MV Albedo will launch a nationwide appeal today in a bid to raise enough money to free their men.

The sailors are among 15 crew still being held captive by Somali pirates on the hijacked ship, after seven Pakistani crew were freed last week.

The pirates released the Pakistanis in exchange for a US$1.1 million (Dh4m) ransom raised by Pakistani relatives and businessmen. The amount was part of a total $2.85m ransom that the pirates had demanded. They have refused to release all the sailors until their demands are met.

“We don’t want them to keep waiting and die there, we must do something,” said Fatima Farhana, a schoolteacher and the daughter of the ship’s second engineer, Segu Mohammed Bisthamy.

“I can’t express how difficult this is for us. This was supposed to be my father’s last sail. He wanted to rest, and now we have to try everything to get them back. It is really too sad for all our families.”

The hostages have been aboard the Malaysian-flagged cargo vessel since November 2010, when it was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden after leaving Jebel Ali port for Kenya.

Among the sailors still held captive are seven Bangladeshis, six Sri Lankans, an Indian and an Iranian. One Indian sailor was shot dead by pirates last year in an effort to pressure the Iranian owner to pay.

The Sri Lankan fund-raising drive aiming to raise $1m will begin today in Colombo with a media conference to be attended by relatives of the six Sri Lankan hostages.

The families have asked a former naval officer from their country to act as a mediator in talks with the pirates.

Worries about the safety of the remaining hijacked crew resurfaced after news spread about the brutality suffered by the freed Pakistani sailors.

Mr Bisthamy called his wife in Colombo shortly before the Pakistani crew were released, asking her to talk to the government.

“A day before the Pakistanis were freed, my dad talked to my mum and asked her to go to the president. He said, ‘Try to do something,'” recalled Mrs Farhana.

“We have tried to reach the government but we had no success, so now we are going to the media and to Sri Lankan people anywhere in the world, asking if they can assist us.”

Mr Bisthamy’s family has relatives in Dubai, and he had previously worked with a Dubai-registered merchant vessel.

Jawaid Khan, the MV Albedo captain who was among those freed, and Ahmed Chinoy, the lead negotiator, have also pledged to help.

“I will do my best to get these men free,” Mr Chinoy said. “The pressure on the men and their families is extreme and people from all communities should come forward.”

The 15 hostages had sent a letter to Mr Chinoy through the freed Pakistani sailors, warning that they would not survive the difficult conditions on the ship, and pleading with him to continue his efforts to free them.

Meanwhile, Mrs Farhana worries about the health of her father, who turns 60 this year.

Mr Bisthamy has a weak arm due to an earlier accident, and she is anxious after learning about the random firing and severe beating the Pakistani crew endured.

“I think he was shot in the hand, but he is not telling us everything when he calls,” she said.

“He doesn’t want to upset us. My father had some responsibilities because our family home is mortgaged with the bank, so he wanted to save some money. Now, we must borrow again. But money and our income does not matter. We just want our dad back.” (The National)