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‘I could only think of dying’: Sailor recalls four days as hostage to Somali pirates

Monday April 17, 2017
By Ramola Talwar Badam

Kevin Finnigan/Tropic Maritime Images In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, the Aris 13 oil tanker is seen from a helicopter in the harbor of Gladstone, Australia. P

DUBAI // Somali pirates boarded a UAE-managed tanker by pretending to need water, then drew guns and took the crew hostage, a sailor revealed.

The eight crew of the Aris 13 were lined up and told they would be shot in the head during their four-day ordeal that started on March 13.

Sri Lankan sailor Sunil Bulathsinhala has told how Aris 13 became the first ship to be hijacked by Somali pirates since 2012.

He also described the dramatic rescue by marine police from the autonomous Somali state of Puntland. When the rescue attempt began, on March 16, the sailors feared they would not survive.

"They fired warning shots and then loud shooting started. I thought it was the end, my end," Mr Bulathsinhala said.

The pirates dragged the men to the deck and made them call their families, the South African tanker owner and Dubai management company.

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"One said, ‘We will kill you one by one’. They covered our faces with towels and held guns to our heads.

"I did not want to cry in front of my family but when I spoke to my wife, I was crying. I could only think of dying. I told her to take care of our daughter and that I loved them.

"Other men were also forced to call home."

When the exchange of fire intensified, the Sri Lankan crew hid below deck. It was not until the next day that they could call home with the news that they were safe.

The rescue was the culmination of events that began as the tanker was sailing at 7 knots on its way from Djibouti to Mogadishu, making it easy to board.

"They first came asking for water and we thought they were fishermen, but they must have been checking if we had armed gunmen," Mr Bulathsinhala said from his home in Colombo.

"We were not suspicious because there have been no hijackings for so many years. At first there were five to six men, then the mother ship came and in less than an hour there were 30 pirates.

"There were many guns, automatic guns, AK-47s and small guns also. They put a gun to my head, they were always threatening to shoot us. They wanted $1 million but we could give them nothing.

"They took all our laptops, mobile phones and money, although we did not have much. Everywhere we went, they came with us – the toilet, the mess room.

"On the first day they kept changing the ship’s position. They would drop anchor and change position again and again."

Mr Bulathsinhala said the pirates fed their captives because the tanker was stocked with supplies.

They could also hear foreign navies trying to contact them while patrolling the hostile waters.

"French, Indian and Japanese naval ships asked on the radio about what had  happened and if we needed medical facilities. But we could not answer," he said.

After sailing for 27 years, he now plans to recover at home with his family before joining a company that he hopes will provide stronger protection and does not operate in high-risk zones.

Other sailors, such as the 10 men on Al Kausar dhow released last week, are in no position to demand better protection.

The dhow and its cargo of rice and wheat were hijacked on its way from Dubai to Yemen on March 31 and Somali forces rescued the men on April 10.

The crew on the Indian-registered dhow will return home after the cargo is unloaded, said Noor Mohammed from Mandvi, the sailors’ hometown in the Indian state of Gujarat.

"Wherever the owner books the ship, they have to go," Mr Mohammed said. "This is a small village and everyone, the sailors and the captain, are from here. Yes there is fear about the future but this is the only job they know.

Famine and a lack of vigilance among crews after a long period of stability has been credited with a rise in hijackings in recent weeks. There have been at least two other seizures since the Aris 13 ordeal.

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