Once again, conflicting reports are circling around the release of the MV Iceberg, hijacked by Somali pirates on March 29, 2010 near the port of Aden, giving it the distinction of being the longest held vessel.
In the first story, relatives of the seafarers this week said the MV Iceberg and her crew of 23 are due to be released by mid-July.
"We have been told it will happen in July," the father of a captured sailor told The National. "I have not spoken to my son in more than a year. I constantly worry about his health and condition. We just want them to be free and that's all we are working towards."
The second and official version is that nothing is happening and something is happening. The Indian high commissioner, Ghana high commissioner and Yemeni diplomatic officials in Nairobi told Somalia Report they have not heard anything about the potential release of the vessel. The Indian Ambassador to Dubai, however, repeated the relatives claims.
"They have negotiated," said MK Lokesh, the Indian ambassador to the UAE told The National. "Our hope is there will be a resolution by mid-July. We have requested the ship owners find an early solution."
In the third version, pirates today told Somalia Report the ransom negotiations have concluded and they are on standby aboard the vessel awaiting ransom amounting to US$ 6 million. The pirates added they have increased the number of gunmen in and around the vessel to protect the ransom money handlers.
There are however, two reasons the release may take longer than the relatives believe. Frist, the pirates said they are holding the captives on land and will need to get them back on the vessel while dodging anti-piracy patrols. The vessel is also damaged and part of it is out of water and repairs are unlikely anytime soon.
Thoughout the 27 months in captivity, rumors and drama have centered around the Panama flagged vessel from confusion over ransom drops, to claims of the Iceberg carrying toxic chemicals, to the death of a crewman and total abandonment by the shipowner. Somalia Report breaks down the claims and timeline.
Death of a Crewman
The crew was originally made up of 24 members, but one reportedly died seven months into the ordeal. The remaining crew of 23 are made up of eight Yemeni, six Indians, four Ghanains, two Sudanese, two Pakistani and one Filipino.
On October 27, 2010 the Yemeni 3rd Officer of the vessel reportedly died of malnutrition. Crew members told Somalia Report that the deceased crewman began to suffer psychological problems during his time in captivity and jumped overboard.
The body was retrieved and was being kept in a freezer on the vessel. The crew reported the matter to the ship owner, but the owner just gave instructions to take the body off the vessel.
By February 22, 2011 a German naval ship with the designation "F804" came alongside to render aid and remove the cadaver which was - by then - being stored in the cold locker without electricity. The ship was was warned off by the pirates.
Three of the remaining 23 crew members on the vessel were also suffering similar conditions, the crew members said at the time. It is unknown if this remains the case two years later.
The chief engineer was abducted on February 9, 2011 by his captors and taken to an unknown destination. The second engineer of the vessel, Francis Koosom, told Somalia Report that the chief engineer was taken by heavily armed men to an unknown destination ashore.
“We are very worried because early this week our captors gave us 48 hours saying that they will execute us if the ship owner isn’t going to pay them ransom money to secure for our freedom by yesterday evening,” Koomsom told Somalia Report at the time of the incident.
There has not been an update on the whereabouts of the crewman.
Confusion Over Ransom
Throughout the last two years, there have been countless ransom demands accompanied by more high-seas drama.
In April 2011 the pirates sent a mobile phone video to an Indian news station to force negotiations claiming the murder of the crew member and sickness on board.
After little success, the pirates told the owner not to contact them until he had the ransom. After a lapse of months with no contact the owner brought in former TFG Defense Minister General Naji to help negotiate. The ransom was reduced to $3 million but the company only counter offered with $300,000. Negotiations were cut off by the pirates.
In early September 2011 the pirates originally demanded $10 million dollars which by any standard is unreleastic. This put the negotiation with the Yemeni owner based in Dubai in peril. Predictably the negotiations faltered. The pirates then began contacting and terrorizing the families of crew members in Ghana, Yemen and India and making threats and demand including 48 hour deadlines to kill the crew unless the ransom was paid. A Ghanaian crew member who spoke to Richard Mensah at Citi News:
“After two months of our capture, our provisions got finished and they supplied us with flour, rice and sugar. We are all accommodated in a small cabin and we sleep close to each other, there is a gunman at the window and another at the entrance and before you go out you ask permission at gun point. What we are going through is more than brutality.
“What we receive from them is starvation; in fact the water we drink is very bad. At a point all the water got finished and we had to drink from the drips of the air conditioner. In fact we are going through hell here, what we are going through is more than hell. The pirates say their ransom is ten million dollars but from our point of view even if we give them 400,000 dollars they will take.
“They have given us a 48 hour deadline that if we don’t come up with anything reasonable they will kill some of us and sink the vessel. I am appealing to the Ghanaian authority that they should do something to save our lives because our treatment here is inhuman,” he said.
By late September, the pirates demanded $8 million in ransom and claimed that the health of crew was deteriorating due to the secret chemicals the vessel is carrying, according one of the pirates holding the vessel who spoke Somalia report by phone.
“The health situation of the crew is very serious. First there were 24 crew and one died last February. The 23 that remain are in poor condition due to the poison from the chemicals on the ship," said Aadan, a self-declared pirate spokesman who uses only his first name, while on a board the vessel.
“We are demanding $8 million since this vessel is carrying chemical materials. When we hijacked this vessel the owner of the vessel ordered the crew to exit the vessel because the owner doesn’t want the world to know his vessel is carrying chemical materials," said the pirate.
Although the pirate could not identify the type of chemicals, he explained to Somalia Report that the crew "can't take food well and are losing weight. They are in pain."
Other reports indicated the vessel is officially carrying machinery bound for the United Arab Emirates.
Over the last two years, there have also been several false reports about the ship being released, including one in October 2011.
“We are still on the vessel. We heard the international media published stories that the MV Iceberg was released, but we are not close to releasing this vessel. Right now we don’t care about the crew's situation. We are just holding them and the vessel until we will get our demanded ransom,“ a spokesman of the pirate group, Aden, told Somalia Report at the time.
Crew members then sent out a distress call asking for help. A Ghanaian crew member Francis Koomson told Somalia Report in October 2011 that their vessel was taking in water and the engine room was flooding. He said they had contacted Mombasa Maritime Rescue Coordination Center for assistance.
“We need water, medicine, diesel and food. Things are very bad here, we need urgent assistance,” he pleaded.
By December 2011, the pirates said they were moving some of the extremely ill hostages to land.
Launched in 1976, the MV Iceberg is owned by Azal Shipping run by Mr. Yassir Amin. The vessel is a Ro/Ro carrying 4,500 tons of liquid natural gas cylinders, shipped from the oil port in Little Aden run by Aden Refinery Company. She was bound for Jebel Ali in the UAE when hijacked only ten nautical miles out of the port of Aden.
The shipowner said the MV Iceberg was laden with generators, transformers and empty fuel tanks for British power rental company Aggreko International Power Projects.
Swedish filmmaker Neil Bell is finishing an 80 minute documentary on the plight of the MV Iceberg and the pirates for Rabotat films. If the trailer is indicative of the rest of the film it will be riveting. The pirates kept a crew of 33 guards on board but have given up and reduced the guard to six men.
The surviving Yemenis on board are captain Abdulrazag Ali Saleh, engineer Mohamed Abdullah Ali Khan and sailor Ahmed Fayz Bair. All of the officers have been beaten and badly abused according to a eye witness aboard the ship.
The financier of the pirates who captured this ship is Mr. Aden Abdirahman Ismail (Aden Sanjab) and the commander of the pirates holding the MV Iceberg is Ayub Yusuf, both of the subclan of Reer-Aden/Omar-Mohamud/Majerten.
In another twist a former Somali translator and a former negotiator who was on board the ship for an extended time both allege that the real owner of the ship is a Yemeni named Saeed Mohamed Qali who is currently held in Guantanamo Bay that Azad operates as a front.
Azal Shipping & Cargo
P.O. BOX 29400
Dubai, United Arab Emirates