/ MANILA, Philippines — The U.S. Navy may have rescued an American cargo-ship captain and French commandos saved a hijacked yacht...
MANILA, Philippines — The U.S. Navy may have rescued an American cargo-ship captain and French commandos saved a hijacked yacht in the lawless seas off Somalia, but a military rescue is unlikely for most of the nearly 300 merchant seamen now held hostage by Somali pirates.
Most of the ships on which they are held now lie at anchor in pirate strongholds.
Seafarers from the Philippines account for 105 of the prisoners, not surprising for a poor Southeast Asian country that supplies about 30 percent of the world’s 1.2 million merchant sailors.
Mark Abalos had spent 10 years at sea before his ship was waylaid last summer by Somali pirates who clambered aboard from two twin-engine boats, brandishing a grenade launcher, an assault rifle, pistols and knives.
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The Antigua-flagged MV BBC Trinidad had been a month into a trip hauling logs from Mexico to the Middle East when the pirates boarded Aug. 21. A few days later, the boat anchored within sight of Somalia’s shore. Two or three other hijacked ships already were there, and others came later.
“The pirates apparently were from different gangs, each with their own hijacked ship, talking through two-way radios about the status of ransom negotiations,” Abalos said.
After anchoring, 15 more pirates came out to join the initial hijackers. They asked for information and took over the satellite phone on board. The chief pirate negotiator went by the name Abdi and spoke English well.
“We can hear Abdi talking,” Abalos said. “We figured out they were demanding $8 million.”
Some hostages have told of mock executions in which pirates, angered that ransom negotiations weren’t going well, lined up their captives and fired weapons close to their heads. And there has been at least one gunfight among pirates.
Catherine Boretta, whose husband, Rodell, is part of a 23-man Filipino crew that has been held for five months, said he was shot in the leg, apparently by a stray bullet when two arguing pirates tried to shoot each other.
She spoke with him by phone April 10. Such calls from a ship’s satellite phone or a cellphone are scant and mostly seem designed to urge relatives to pressure ship owners to pay ransom. Her husband told her food rations had run out and the sailors were emaciated, she said.
Conditions weren’t quite as bad for Abalos and his 12 crew mates. “We got pillows and sheets from our cabins, and we were all ordered to just stay in the bridge,” which had air conditioning and a CD player constantly cranking out Bon Jovi and other rock songs, he said. “I knew our fuel would eventually run out. I hoped that it will not run out before ransom was paid,” he said.
When the ship’s larders ran bare, the pirates brought goat meat and noodles on board.
After 21 days, a tugboat arrived with a long-haggled-over $1.1 million ransom. The pirates began to leave the ship. “You’re free,” Abalos said they told the crew.
Leszek Adler, of Poland, was the technical officer on the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, which was hijacked off Somalia in November and released in January. “Other than a few minor episodes they weren’t hostile toward us all, although there were a few of them that had a hotter temper,” he said.
Adler said he and his fellow sailors started rationing their 30-day food supply immediately after their capture, figuring negotiations could drag on for two or three months.
When the food ran out, they were allowed to fish from the deck with a hook and fishing line while a pair of guards watched.
“You put a piece of fish or meat on the end and that was it, kind of like Robinson Crusoe,” Adler said with a laugh. “Those waters are very rich in fish.”
Asked about the potential impact of the recent rescue of the American captain, Adler said: “It will definitely worsen the situation for sailors. The pirates were very careful the whole time, very sensitive to contact with the outside world, and were afraid of a possible rescue attempt the whole time.”