Cargo ship crew left stranded in Somalia

Captain says he and 13 colleagues have no food or supplies, caught in a dispute between local businessmen and the ship's owner.

DUBAI // The captain of a Dubai-based cargo ship stranded in a Somalian port for the last six months said yesterday his crew's plight was getting desperate and called for immediate assistance. The Panama-flagged cargo vessel MV Leila, anchored at Berbera Port in the west of the country, is being denied exit by the Somalian authorities due to an alleged legal dispute between some local businessmen and the ship's owner in the UAE.

"We escaped the pirates but are still stuck in the port," the ship's skipper, MP Sarath Weerawansa, told The National by telephone from Berbera Port yesterday. He said his crew had been glad to avoid being hijacked in the pirate infested waters of Somalia, and had never expected to be "held hostage" by the authorities instead. Capt Weerawansa and his 13-strong crew - two Sri Lankans, two Somalis, two Pakistanis and seven Indians - are now languishing on board without food, money or medical supplies.

"We did not see this coming. Many, including me, are sick here. The crew is physically and mentally tired," said Capt Weerawansa. "We have no money, food or medicine. The crew is 100 per cent tired. A few of us can go out to get provisions occasionally but we have no money. "I blame the owners. They have neglected us and hardly come on the phone. We have not been paid for four months." The ship left Dubai on September 7 carrying general cargo and cars destined for the Somali market. The hold was emptied by September 15, and the crew was preparing to depart when the port authorities suddenly denied them permission to leave.

The ship's owner, Ghadeeb al Aleey, said the vessel was being held because of a legal dispute, and strongly refuted Capt Weerawansa's claim that their predicament was his company's fault. "We met all our legal duties here in Dubai and there in Berbera," said Mr al Aleey. He would not comment on the claims that the men had not been paid. He said he believed local businessmen influenced port authorities to hold the ship until they are paid for loss of cargo caused by a fire that gutted another ship owned by the same company.

"We are negotiating with the concerned people, but cannot see a promising result or good co-operation," said Mr al Aleey. "We have already proved our case to the highest court in Somalia and they ordered the release of the ship." He said the order was issued by the court on November 12, but the port authorities had so far failed to act on it. "It is being held because the rules of the court are not respected by the port authority," said Mr al Aleey.

"There are 14 crew members who are in a very bad condition. They are being forced to stay on board over the last six months and are short on supplies and no medical care." He said the Somalian businessmen had filed a case against his company demanding a quarter of a million dollars to release the vessel, claiming that was what was owed from the fire. Documents held by Dubai Customs, however, show that the ship that caught fire had been carrying only about US$48,000 of goods for export.

Mr al Aleey said a company representative has been in Somalia for the past few months trying to free the ship. When asked if the crew was being threatened by the authorities, Capt Weerawansa said: "I can't talk about this under the present circumstances. The biggest problem here is that we are stuck. We love our families and we love our lives." Andrew Mwangura, East Africa's co-ordinator for the Seafarers Assistance programme, confirmed that at least two of the MV Leila's crew members had fallen ill. "There is no food or medicine on board. At least two people are sick and need attention," he said.