Sri Lankan hostage in anarchic Somalia
Gunmen drop ransom demand as anxious family awaits release
By Chris Kamalendran
Efforts to obtain the release of a Sri Lankan captain and his nine member African crew appear to be making headway with the Somali gunmen who hijacked the ship now saying they only want an audience with WFP officials.
Contacts between the gunmen and officials in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi have been intensified and the gunmen had started to talk.

The news has kindled hopes in anxious family members who, since they learnt of the hijack from a newspaper report, have been in and out of the Foreign Office and keeping contact with officials of the UN and the shipping company.
Sellathurai Mahalingam, 57, is a professional sailor and counts more than two decades of sea-faring. His crew – a Tanzanian engineer and eight Kenyan seamen – and he were taken hostage by the gunmen after they hijacked their ship carrying the World Food Program’s tsunami relief aid to victims in Somalia. The incident took place on June 24 when the ship, MV Semlov, was heading towards the Northern Somali port of Bossaso.

Mr. Mahalingam’s sister, Wasantha Kulanthaivadivel, a resident of Colombo, said she had been assured by the ship’s agent that negotiations were making progress. The Foreign Office also has assured the captain’s wife, Sandhana Walliamma, who lives in Puloly that the negotiations were under way to secure the release of her husband.

The wife had learnt of the hijacking of the ship when she saw a news item in a Tamil daily. “The last time he called me was two days before the ship set sail from Mombasa. He asked about a house we were planning to buy in Puloly. He wanted to send the money to make the final payment so that we can move out of this house which was damaged by the war,” the wife said.

Ms. Mahalingam said that of their four children, the youngest, Vishnukumaran, was highly worried about his father’s safety and always questioned her as to whether he would be harmed. She said she had handed over a letter to the WFP, making an appeal to the gunmen for the release of her husband.

Ms. Mahalingam said her husband had visited many war zones, including Iran and Iraq, in his 21 year sea life. He joined the hijacked ship about seven months ago. Soon after learning about the hijacking, Ms. Mahalingam contacted her sister-in-law, Ms. Kulanthaivadivel in Colombo.

“As soon as we got the news, we rushed to the Foreign Office, but was told to come on Monday because of the weekend holidays. Then we contacted a friend and obtained the telephone number of the ship’s agent in Kenya. They told us that they were in contact with the hijackers,” Ms. Kulanthaivadivel said.

According to Reuters news agency, the Somali gunmen have denied that they are demanding a ransom but said they are yet to decide on what to do with the ship and the hostages.

“We are not pirates and we are not after any financial gain as people are claiming,” Mohamed Abdi Hassan, the leader of the group, told Reuters by telephone from Harardheere, 113 kms from where his men were holding the ship at anchor.

The WFP on Monday suspended aid shipments to Somalia until the vessel was released. Hassan, whose identity was confirmed by a minister in Somalia's new government, said his militia was simply guarding the seas against illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste.

“We normally request all ships that pass in our waters to identify themselves. The ship in question had no name or anything and when we asked them to substantiate their claim of carrying relief food they had no papers or any proof whatsoever. That's when we became suspicious and impounded the ship.”
The WFP, however, immediately denied that.

“The food was clearly marked 'WFP' and stamped with our logo,” spokeswoman Rene McGuffin said. The WFP also showed Reuters documents it said were photocopies of papers on board proving the ship was carrying relief food.
The relief agency said it was engaged in dialogue with local clan elders, but had no direct contact with the hijackers and would not negotiate with them, Ms. McGuffin said.

The cargo of 850 tonnes of rice, donated by Japan and Germany, was destined for thousands of Somalis hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean. Hassan said the hostages were in good condition. “They are alive and well and we will soon reach a decision,” he said.

“Most of the hostages are from our neighbour Kenya. We will not and have not harmed them, we have treated them with dignity and would continue to do so.” The militia leader accused the WFP and other humanitarian organisations of ignoring their remote northeastern region.

The WFP, however, said it delivered 5,000 50-kg bags of cereal foods there in April and May. On average, the WFP provides 3,000 tonnes of aid a month to 275,000 people in the Horn of Africa country, and now has only two weeks' worth of food inside Somalia.

Anarchic Somalia has been without proper rule since the 1991 fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre at the hands of warlords. Its waters are among the world's most dangerous, with frequent hijackings.

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