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16 Jun, 2008 15:28

Fears grow for crew seized by Somali pirates

There’s growing concern for a group of fifteen sailors who were taken hostage by pirates at the end of May. The crew from Russia, Ukraine, Estonia and Myanmar have been held captive on a ship off the coast of Somalia for 20 days.

The wife of the Russian captain of the German-owned Lehmann Timber ship says that the crew are in danger. Citing undisclosed sources, Ksenia Bortasheva says the crew are being kept without food and water in terrible conditions on the captured vessel.

“Today is the fifth day that the crew has not been given any water. They are also being deprived of food. They are being held on the ship's deck in 40 degree heat,” she said.

The captain’s wife also said that although the ship's owner had promised that the crew would be released shortly, they were still waiting.

“The only thing we hear these days is that the negotiations are ongoing,” Bortasheva said.

The Lehman Timber cargo vessel was hijacked on May 28 in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. It happened just one day after pirates detained the Dutch-owned Amiya Scan ship, with four Russians on board.

The families of the captured sailors from the Lehman Timber vessel have called on the Russian, Ukrainian and Estonian governments, and also the media, to help secure the release of the crew. According to relatives, the negotiations are now at a standstill because the owner of the ship is not willing to meet the pirates' demands.

Maritime expert Mikhail Voytenko says the company employed to negotiate the ransom had managed to reduce the price for the men’s release.

“The ransom demanded for the release of the Lehman Timber ship is now as low as $US 250,000. But the ship’s owner still refuses to pay. Generally speaking, this price is ridiculous, because usually the ransom to free a hijacked ship in Somalia is around $US 700,000,” he said.

Voytenko added that pressure must now be put on the ship’s owners to pay the pirates before the crisis turns into a tragedy.

There have been around 30 cases of maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia this year alone.

The UN Security Council has recently authorised foreign warships to enter Somali waters and take on the pirates.

“We understand that this unique situation in Somalia requires an exceptional measure of the international community to deal with the problem of piracy and arms robbery,” said Hasan Kleib, Indonesian Ambassador to the UN.

Russia says it prefers to find a peaceful solution, but if the situation gets out of hand, the navy is ready to intervene.