A team of negotiators specialising in forgotten hostages secured the release of the three Iranian crewmen after their vessel was hijacked in 2015
A Somali pirate stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel washed ashore after the pirates were paid a ransom and the crew were released in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia, in September, 2012. AP Photo
A British-led team of hostage negotiators are celebrating after securing the release of three kidnapped sailors in the last and longest running hijacking in the Somali piracy crisis.
For eight years, the Hostage Support Partnership has been behind the release of dozens of ‘forgotten’ people held for ransom by Somali pirates.
Now, after five and a half years the final hostages have returned home to their loved ones thanks to the efforts of John Steed and his colleagues.
“It was an emotional moment to see them released,” the retired British diplomat told The National.
“We made it our mission to help all the forgotten hostages at the height of the crisis eight years ago and to see the final release marks the end of an era of Somali piracy and the pain and suffering of Somalia’s forgotten hostages.
“These three are the last of the hostages, this really is the end of the Somali pirates and we have finally achieved what we set out to do.”
The three Iranian crewmen from the Siraj fishing boat returned home last week.
They had been in captivity since March 2015 when their vessel was hijacked off the Somali coast.
Three Iranian fishermen, who were released by Somali pirates after being held for five years, pose for a photo in the VIP hall of Imam Khomeini Airport, in Tehran, Iran on August 21, 2020. WANA via Reuters
Mr Steed, a former military adviser to the UN in Somalia, and his team at the Hostage Support Partnership, a pro-bono humanitarian group based in Nairobi, Kenya, brokered the release, which saw a $180,000 ransom being paid.
The retired British colonel and his colleagues have made it their mission to rescue “forgotten hostages” – poor fishermen with no insurance who are often left languishing the longest in the hands of pirates.
Ransom money is usually sourced from well wishers within the international shipping industry but in this case the funds came from private Iranian donors.
Since the height of the crisis a decade ago, thousands of crew members have been captured by Somali pirates. Naval patrols by the UN Security Council, criminal prosecutions and security measures, such as armed guards on vessels, have helped curb the gangs in recent years.
Mr Steed’s office walls were once covered in lists of those lost alongside photographs of their ships and maps of the Somali coast.
His team have tirelessly worked for free to negotiate the release of more than 60 hostages and have helped hundreds more return home.
An unidentified Asian sailor (C) hugs John Steed (L), coordinator of the Hostage Support Partners (HSP) who helped negotiate the release, upon his arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport after they were released by Somali pirates, Nairobi, Kenya, 23 October 2016. EPA
“From the bad old days of piracy, ships taken at sea were insured and the insurance companies would pay the ransom and the ships would be released,” the 64-year-old said.
“But many are poor fishermen and the ships are not insured. The ship owners’ companies gave up on them. They would be from poor south-east Asian countries and they would get abandoned, we call them the forgotten hostages and we set about trying to help them and bring them home.
“Every time we get a group of hostages out it is always a bit emotional. Each one takes us a long time to find ways to get them out due to the number of countries involved and the lack of insurance.
“We have negotiated 62 releases and have helped well over 100 people, sometimes people released by the country need help getting back home because they are on the land and we have good contacts inside Somalia.
“These three are the last of the hostages. It is always a bit emotional giving people their lives back, this is a big achievement for all those involved.”
It might be the final release, but their work is not over.
Their next project is now to help in the release of five doctors and nurses being held hostage in Somalia.
“Our work is continuing,” Mr Steed added.
“There are five other hostages in Somalia now, it’s nothing to do with pirates or the sea, they were taken hostage for money inside Somalia, one is a woman from the Red Cross, two Cuban doctors and three Kenyans. We will now be lending our expertise to help them.”
In 2010, Somali pirates took more than a thousand hostages in raids on over 200 ships, many in the central Indian Ocean, and earned at least a hundred million dollars.
In many cases, ships were captured, ransomed, and released within weeks.
Often the gangs were professional and targeted vessels based on an assessment of a ship’s owner and its cargo.
At the peak of the piracy outbreak in January 2011, Somali pirates held 736 hostages and 32 boats.
Between 2010 and 2019, more than 2,300 crew were taken.