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ASIA: Pirates were gun-toting drug addicts: freed Indian sailors<

24 Nov 2008 7:36 PM
By Phil Hazlewood

MUMBAI, Nov 24 AFP - Pirates who seized a chemical tanker in the treacherous waters off Somalia were gun-toting drug addicts whose only goal was money, freed members of the ship's crew said on Monday after they returned home.

Three of the 18 Indian sailors who were on the MV Stolt Valor when it was hijacked two months ago said about 30 pirates seized the ship after firing arocket-propelled grenade (RPG) from a speedboat.

The Japanese-owned, Hong Kong-registered ship, which also had two Filipinos, a Bangladeshi and a Russian on board, was released on November 15 after aransom thought to be aboutUS2.5 million ($A3.94 million) was paid.

Four of the Indian sailors returned by air to Mumbai from the Gulf state ofOman early Monday. The other Indians were due back on Tuesday.

Recalling the moment the ship was captured, Naveed Burombka, a 20-year-old trainee officer, told a news conference in Mumbai: "First they fired a RPG towards our ship but it fell about 10 to 15 metres short.

"Then they boarded. They were firing from our ship. No one understood what was going on. They were carrying automatic weapons, RPGs and stun guns."

General steward Allister Fernandes, 25, said fear spread throughout the crew as the pirates, making no effort to hide their identities, held them at gunpoint round the clock.

"We all had to stay on the bridge, all 22 crew members. We were sleeping there. It was very strict. We had to get their permission for everything," hetold reporters.

"Prayers kept us going."

Burombka said one of the pirates was in charge of negotiations and the captain was kept updated on progress. The pirates also appeared to be keeping in contact with other armed groups nearby, he added.

"If you retaliated, they would have shot you ... They were drug addicts. Their only purpose was money," he said.

No one was physically hurt, the men said, but likened their ordeal to "mental torture".

The MV Stolt Valor is one of a number of merchant vessels that has been caught up in piracy off lawless Somalia's north-east coast, a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which 30 per cent of the world's oil transits.

Two days after the ship was released, pirates seized the giant Saudi-owned crude carrier Sirius Star in the most audacious hijacking yet, sparking panic in the shipping industry and prompting companies to reroute sea-borne cargo.

The general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), Abdulgani Serang, warned against romanticising the pirates' actions and called for greater protection for ships in the region.

"They (pirates) are maritime terrorists," he told the news conference.

"Naval patrols at the moment are conducted by different countries. We want patrols under the mandate of the United Nations which should not be countrysensitive. That would be more effective in the long run.

"With all due respect to the navies already there, you can't pick and choose who to help."

The three seamen, however, said they were aware of the risks before settingsail and were still prepared to ply the route, whatever the risks.

"These things, like terrorism, happen in other places also," said Burombka.

"It doesn't only happen in Somali waters. We are going to take it as a positive that this nightmare is over."