Navies should sanitise Gulf of Aden: Stolt Valor captain


New Delhi : Stressing that the Gulf of Aden, which controls the access to the Suez Canal, is vital for the global economy, the Indian captain of the cargo vessel MV Stolt Valor that was held captive by Somali pirates for two months, Tuesday stressed the need for global navies to “sanitise” the waterway and stage “hot pursuit” raids against the brigands.

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“The Gulf of Aden cannot be closed down or held to ransom. Everyone will suffer. The route has huge economic proportions attached to it. I request or rather I demand that navies should sanitise the area,” a haggard looking Captain Prabhat Goyal emphatically told reporters here Tuesday on his arrival here along with 11 other crew members of the ship.

Five other Indian crew members had returned to Mumbai Monday. The ship carried a total crew of 22.

It was an emotional reunion as family members of the crew members hugged each other with tears rolling down their cheeks.

“I am really happy that all the members have returned home safely. I thank god for it. But I will never be able to forget these two months,” an ecstatic Seema Goyal, the wife of Capt Goyal, said.

Seema had been shell-shocked when her husband informed her over the satellite phone that his ship had been hijacked. She had left no stone unturned to contact the prime minister, the defence minister, external affairs minister as well as the shipping company that employed her husband.

Ayushi Goyal, their 11-year-old daughter, ran to greet her father the moment crew reached the airport lounge.

All of them expressed gratitude to the Indian government and the Indian Navy.

MT Stolt Valor was hijacked by a group of Somali pirates off the Yemen coast Sep 15 while it was bound for Mumbai from the Suez Canal. The pirates took the Japanese-owned vessel to the Somali coast and demanded a ransom of $6 million. They released the ship Nov 16 after reportedly collecting $2.5 million from the ship’s owners.

According to Goyal, “we had taken all the precautions laid down internationally to prevent a hijacking. But once the pirates are on board, everybody is helpless. I feel prevention is better than cure. So the government should do something to stop piracy in the region”.

Goyal, who has been sailing for 30 years, said the 52 sea bandits who took over his ship were trained militiamen.

“It took only three minutes for the pirates to board our ship. They asked us to stop, using sign language as they did not know English. It was only the next day that we came to know that we were hijacked and were towing two pirate boats.

“All of them were carrying Russian-built Kalashnikov guns. Only three to four of the pirates on board were fishermen. Everyone else had advanced training. At no point did they leave behind their weapons,” Goyal said, recalling how the pirates had fired at the crew, narrowly missing them, to drive home their message.

“As the master of the ship I was touching the feet of the pirates and urging them not to harm my crew. However, as we reached the port I declined to give anything to the pirates from my provision store. We also stopped their water supply.

“There were times when we wondered whether we would ever get to see our families again and many times we thought it was all over for us,” said Captain Goyal.

Even as Goyal spoke about “unimaginable” sufferings of his crew and himself, a number of ships, including the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star and an Uzbek vessel carrying tanks, remain in the captivity of the pirates anchored in two ports of Somalia – Eyl and Hobyo.

Goyal said that he had spotted at least 30 hijacked vessels during his two-month stay there. One ship had three women on board, he said, adding that urgent measures were required to get them freed.

Profusely thanking the Indian government, navy and the media, Goyal said: “I’ll go by the Gulf of Aden again and again, I’m not scared.”

He expressed satisfaction at the way the Indian Navy had sunk a pirate “mother ship” and “according to my knowledge, they have also captured some pirates”.