Hijacked crew on a shipping tanker anchored off the UAE coast told how gunmen boarded their ship in the dead of night before ordering it to be sailed to Iran.
Crew members told investigators armed men from a smaller vessel posing as surveyors boarded the MT Gulf Sky near Khor Fakkan on July 5, 2020.
The 264-metre long, 78,000-tonne vessel was sailed to Bandar Abbas, Iran, where it docked on July 7 and disappeared from shipping-tracking websites that monitor maritime traffic.
Their accounts were given to investigators from the Dominica Maritime Administration, where the Gulf Sky was flagged, in an official report published on July 19.
“The crew indicates they were under duress, as they allege, they were held up at gunpoint, had their hands tied by armed robbers using cable ties, and were later blindfolded when disembarking the vessel," wrote lead investigator Eric Dawicki.
"The disappearance of the vessel was likely facilitated by the intended owners of the vessel, or more broadly by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps," Mr Dawicki said.
“It appears that the actors intended to bring the vessel to Iran to further the aim of distributing Iranian state oil."
At the time of the hijacking, the vessel had been held by UAE authorities since January 27, 2020, two days after it arrived in Khor Fakkan, due to a dispute between its former and current owners.
Investigators painted a complex picture of how the vessel, classed as a 'Suezmax' for its ability to fit through the Suez canal, had changed hands several times, latterly for $11.7 million. A criminal complaint filed in the US against the ship’s owners meant the Gulf Sky was prohibited from leaving its position at anchorage in UAE waters.
The vessel's current whereabouts are unknown.
Dozens of unregistered oil tankers have been used by Iran as 'ghost ships' to get around US sanctions, trading with countries such as Syria.
One-eyed hijacker shouted in Farsi
The crew told the Dominican investigators that uniformed men who boarded the ship claimed to be from Turkey, but spoke in Arabic and Farsi.
Shortly after they arrived on board they took weapons out of bags and pointed them at the crew.
One of the hijackers had one eye, and a bald man who claimed to represent the ship’s owner wore a black mask and goggles.
Once in Iran, 26 of the crew were released and taken to an airport to be flown home to New Delhi, India. Two others were released several weeks later.
Interviews were given to the investigators by the ship’s master Captain Joginder Singh, Jatin Mithran, Patnaik Sumar, Suneet Kumar, Afzal Cook and Amit Diwakar.
The report concluded a rise in abandoned vessels was contributing to further acts of instability for the crew at sea.
In an exclusive interview with The National this week, Captain Singh recounted the day of the hijacking - and told of how his crew are owed tens of thousands of dollars they fear they will never see.
Embattled sailors still awaiting wages
None of the men have been paid since last July and are collectively owed $175,000 (Dh642,800) in wages.
Captain Singh said he was owed $38,500 (Dh141,400) after joining the ship on February 27, 2020. Wages are usually paid via an agent, in this case, Metro Marine Shipping Agencies.
Metro Marine said it had no update on if or when the salaries would be paid.
“We have been trying to contact everyone concerned, but we have had no outcome to now,” said Capt Singh, from India.
“These funds have to be paid by the vessel’s owners and managers, who are responsible to pay crew wages on time.
“For several months, the crew has been requesting to all concerned authorities to help us to get our wages and basic requirements.
“Maybe it is because of the pandemic, but no one has followed up with us.
“It has been our bad luck that no one helped after the ordeal we have all been through.
“It was a really horrible experience on that ship.”