Sailors released


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MANILA (AFP) - - Twenty-three Philippine sailors abducted more than five months ago by Somali pirates returned home for an emotional reunion with their families.
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Looking haggard but relieved, and led by their captain Abelardo Pacheco, the crew of the Philippine-flagged MT Stolt Strength was reunited with their families at Manila’s international airport.
The vessel and its crew were released on April 21, ending a 162-day ordeal during which Pacheco said they survived on prayer and constantly feared for their lives.
“Daily life was always a combination of fear and helplessness, hopelessness. It was the most negative feeling one could experience,” said a teary-eyed Pacheco, 62.
He said “there were many attempts” made against the crew’s lives as representatives of their vessel’s owner, Sagana Shipping, negotiated a ransom.
He said the pirates had threatened to shoot them if they tried to escape, and that there were times he had to put himself between his crew and the gunmen.
For second mate Roel de Guzman, the ordeal was a lesson in faith. He said he feared he would never again see his wife, Vilma, and their four children, aged eight to 16.
“But we prayed hard and we were not forgotten,” De Guzman told AFP, as he tightly held his wife, who had waited for hours in the airport lobby.
Vilma de Guzman said that, while her family relied solely on her husband’s salary for their income, she would not allow him to work again on a ship that may pass through Somali waters.
“I don’t want to go through that uncertainty again,” she said.
After it was released the Stolt Strength’s ordeal did not end immediately, with pirates targeting the vessel for a second time after it ran out of fuel and drifted off the eastern coast of Somalia.
US and German navy vessels came to its aid, providing fuel, food and medicine but eventually had to leave on another mission.
“We were left behind unguarded, unprotected,” Pacheco said. "There was obvious fear, apprehension on our side because we had just been released. It was the most dreadful moment of our lives."
A Chinese frigate later escorted the 32,400-ton Stolt Strength to safety.
Filipino officials later said the Chinese had prevented a second attempt by pirates to board the vessel.
Pacheco, a maritime veteran with 41 years’ sailing experience, said he planned to take a long vacation and assess his future.
“I was born a seaman. I will never turn my back on the call of the sea, but prudence dictates that I have to think twice,” he said.
Dexter Custodio, a spokesman for Sagana Shipping, confirmed that a ransom had been paid, although he declined to say how much.
“We were very relieved that our crew was not harmed in any way,” Custodio said. "We join our crew in this joyous homecoming."
The release of the Stolt Strength, one of the ships longest-held by Somali pirates, has raised hopes for dozens of kidnapped Philippine sailors.
“We still have about 88 Filipino seamen aboard seven ships who are still being held hostage in Somalia,” Foreign Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said.
Conejos added that securing the Stolt Strength’s release had been the “most difficult” negotiation with the pirates so far encountered by the Philippines.
The Philippines is the world’s biggest supplier of sailors, with over 350,000 sailors manning oil tankers, luxury liners and passenger vessels worldwide.
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