DUBAI // Family members of sailors aboard the hijacked Dubai-based MV Iceberg 1 are to appeal for the release of the crew today following reports that a second crewman has died.
But the ship's owner, Dubai firm Azal Shipping, denies that the death occurred and says the speculation has been inflaming "tense" negotiations.
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The piracy monitoring group Ecoterra and two Indian sailors, who were freed last week from another ship docked nearby, have alleged that the Iceberg's chief engineer had died. However, the ship's owner, Dubai-based Azal Shipping, has denied the death.
The sailors who spoke of the death were released from the MV Suez, which they said had been anchored near the Iceberg 1 in Somali waters. They claimed that several pirates and an interpreter had told them about the incident. Somali pirates took the Iceberg 1 16 months ago. It is among the vessels that pirates have held for the longest period.
Another sailor in Iceberg 1's 24-man crew died of malnutrition last October. Azal has confirmed that death.
However, an Azal spokesman criticised reports of the chief engineer's death and said that the speculation has been inflaming a tense situation.
"This is all false information which is creating panic," he said. "It's not helping anybody."
Sailors from the Suez, however, said their former captors had told them about the alleged death.
NK Sharma, an engineer who was released from the Suez, spoke by telephone from his home in India.
"We sometimes could not believe everything the pirates said because they said things to threaten and scare us," he said.
But Mr Sharma said he heard of the death "from four pirates separately".
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Ravinder Gulia, another freed sailor from the Suez, said he heard news of the death through an interpreter who spoke some English.
"We could see the ship from our vessel," he said. It is critical that the Iceberg crew "are freed soon or we fear they will all be killed".
Ecoterra said it had received its information from Somali food suppliers and others who had recently boarded the Iceberg and from a third sailor on the Suez.
"There are always people going onto these ships who don't have anything to do with the pirate group except providing supplies. And they talk," an Ecoterra spokesman said.
There have been conflicting reports about how the chief engineer allegedly died.
According to Mr Sharma, some pirates said he had been killed for not obeying orders.
Others said he had been caught in the crossfire of two pirates who were shooting at each other. Ecoterra said the victim had been bound by the pirates and had suffered a spinal injury before passing away.
Ecoterra said the death occurred in June, but the sailors said the man had died in March.
Family members of the Iceberg crew said they had no updates about the latest reported death, or about negotiations for the men's release. The Azal spokesman said negotiations continued.
"The last time I spoke with the secretary of the general manager in Azal company, he told me that negotiations are going on," said Francis Koomson Jr, whose father is being held on the Iceberg 1.
However, speaking by phone from Ghana, Mr Koomson added: "From the last time I spoke with my daddy, it's like nothing of that sort is going on."
Mr Koomson, himself a sailorwaiting to join his first ship, said he had spoken with his father two months ago.
The conversations, which happen only once every few months, last just a few minutes. Relatives feared the men did not share bad news to avoid worrying family members.
"He said he was being given decent food to eat," said Rina Yadav, whose husband, Fantoush, joined the Iceberg two weeks after their wedding. "But I do not know if he is telling me the truth or if he is saying this to assure me. I started crying listening to him talk."
* With additional reporting by Preeti Kannan