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25 Jan, 2009 10:40

Arms ship families fear for loved ones

Relatives of hostages on the Ukrainian ship held by Somali pirates worry about the crew's health. Having tried everything to secure the release of loved ones, they have been met by broken promises from the authorities.

The pirates insist the sailors are all in good health, but the families remain unconvinced.

United by worry and a desire to free their loved ones, the families have joined forces since the 'Faina' was captured of the coast of Kenya on 25 September.

Negotiations over their release continue.

Conflicting reports about the state of the captured sailors’ health is among the most difficult things the families have to deal with.

Viktor Shapovalov, father of a detained sailor, explained the concerns.

“We don’t know how they are. We only know that during the 4 months 17 men have sat in a 12 meter room with no sunlight. And they are seldom being taken outside. We can only assume that their condition is really bad. The latest information was that 7 of them had suffered food poisoning and their skin was covered in lesions,” he said.

The Faina was carrying more than 30 T-72 tanks and several tonnes of other weaponry in what was said to be an official arms deal between Ukraine and Kenya. But later a spokesman for the US Navy alleged part of the cargo was intended for the Darfour area of Sudan – which has a UN weapons embargo imposed on it. This could have sparked a major international scandal, crippling Kiev’s reputation as an arms exporter. The families of the detained crew believe this may well be the reason why the sailors haven’t yet been set free.

Shapovalov said: “Never before have the pirates seized a ship with such cargo. We believe that this incident is politicized and this may be the reason why negotiations have been continuing for so long.”

He says the families are worried about a cover up: “We fear freeing our children may cause problems for somebody. Someone might be interested in keeping them there not to let the truth about the cargo come out,” he said.

In the four months of the Faina stalemate, the families have tried virtually everything to get their next of kin back – from picketing the presidential administration to spreading leaflets in downtown Kiev. They’ve even collected money for the ransom. But all they’ve managed to get so far are broken promises from the authorities.

“We heard assurances from our foreign minister that our boys would be released by New Year. It didn’t happen. So we don’t know anymore who to believe,” Shapovalov said.

Mother of a detained sailor, Olga Girzheva, said: “The people who made us promises, it seems that they themselves don’t believe in what they’re telling us.”

According to the negotiating team, the ransom has been finalised and the sailors could be freed any time. The pirates are said to be willing to talk and are no longer threatening to blow up the vessel with everyone on board.

But 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian remain in captivity.

Their relatives are planning to sue the Ukrainian president if the sailors are not released soon.

They say the last time they heard assurances that their husbands and sons were alive was at the beginning of November.