'They felt they could die at any time': Families' relief as Somali pirates free hostages

Cargo ship MV Abdullah and 23 crew due to reach Dubai next week with naval escort through high-risk zone

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Relatives of 23 hostages on a cargo ship seized by armed Somali pirates have expressed relief and happiness that the men were released after more than a month in captivity.

The freed sailors sent text messages and called their families in Bangladesh after the 65 pirates released the Bangladesh-flagged MV Abdullah on Sunday following a ransom payment.

The crew is safe, the ship is being escorted by naval vessels and will reach Dubai’s Al Hamriya port on Monday, the shipping company confirmed to The National.

My brother’s daughters say ‘My father is free'
Mohammad Asif about his brother Mohammed Atikullah, among the 23 men held by Somali pirates

Crew members told their families they were held at gunpoint on the bridge over the weekend while the ransom was being checked by the pirates.

The men were released after a payment of $5 million was made, local officials in Somalia said. The shipping company declined to divulge details of the hostage negotiations.

Ship to reach Dubai

“We were in a very bad state, we were in a lot of tension for weeks after my husband’s ship was hijacked,” said Jannatul Ferdous, wife of Mohammad Nooruddin, the ship’s steward, speaking over the phone from Chittagong.

“I’m so happy after he called to say they are all fine. They were scared and we were also scared but now it’s over. It was too much tension and worry.”

The men are expected to reach Dubai early next Monday, after which they will decide whether to return home to Bangladesh or continue on their voyage.

Pirates wielding AK-47 assault rifles had boarded the cargo ship carrying 55,000 tonnes of coal from Maputo, Mozambique, to the UAE on March 12 when it was about 500 nautical miles away from the Somali coast.

The men were allowed to call their families from the ship’s satellite phone after they were captured.

Mehrul Karim, chief executive of SR Shipping, part of the Bangladesh-based KSRM Group, confirmed the crew was safe, but declined to talk about the value of the ransom that was paid.

“Everybody is fine, the crew have been checked by navy doctors and their physical condition is fine,” Mr Karim said.

“They are in good spirits and we expect the ship to arrive early on April 22 at Al Hamriya.

“Navy vessels are following the ship in the high-risk areas before it comes into Dubai.”

This is the second time that a vessel owned by the group has been hijacked by Somali pirates.

In March 2011, pirates released 26 hostages from the MV Jahan Moni after 100 days in captivity.

Mr Karim was part of the team that negotiated the release of the crew more than a decade ago.

‘Not one day we were not scared’

Relatives said the sailors were jubilant and could speak freely, in sharp contrast to the terror they experienced during the hijacking.

“In the 33 days they felt they could die anytime and now they are safe,” Mainul Hoque said about his brother Ainul Hoque, an engineer who was among the hostages.

“They are very happy now, they are talking in high voices.

“My brother said, ‘We don’t have to speak softly and hide our voice any more. There was not one day we were not scared.’

“He said the pirates took them at gunpoint to the bridge when they were counting money.

“After they counted the money, they left.”

It is not clear how the ransom was delivered but in past hijacks, helicopters have airdropped payments on to a vessel or small boats have delivered the money to pirates.

The crew's release on Sunday coincided with Pohela Boishakh, new year in the Bengali calendar.

“Exactly the same day they were released, we celebrated [the] new year,” said Mr Hoque, during a phone call from the family home in Chittagong.

“So now we are celebrating Eid and Boishakh. It’s a special time for us.”

Celebrations on hold until sailors return

Consumed by worry, families did not celebrate Eid last week and are waiting to greet the men.

“My brother’s daughters say, ‘My father is free, my father is free,'" said Mohammad Asif. His brother, Mohammed Atikullah, is the ship’s 35-year-old chief officer.

“They ask me why I’m not smiling.

“I will smile when he comes home.”

The pirates had seized laptops and mobile phones from the men and returned a few phones before they left the ship.

Celebrations are on hold until the men come home, the relatives said.

“My mother has been tense every day after my brother was captured,” Mr Asif said from Chittagong.

“When she heard they were released, she cried and gave thanks to Allah,”

“We told my brother the whole country was praying for them.

“This is the best news to get. We feel like today is our Eid day.”

The seizure of the MV Abdullah came amid a surge in Somali piracy as international navies shifted their focus to the Red Sea to guard against attacks on vessels by Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

There have been a series of attacks on ships by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and navies from India, Sri Lanka and Europe have freed boats seized by gunmen.

Updated: April 17, 2024, 3:00 AM