DELHI— It's been over 90 days since 16 Indian sailors were detained by the Equatorial Guinea navel in international waters when they were expected to to load a cargo of crude oil in the AKPO terminal of Nigeria.
They were allegedly arrested for not displaying the Equatorial Guinean flag.
The sailors - a part of the 26- member MT Heroic Idun's crew- have been pleading for help from the government through videos they shared with family members. They say their ship is being towed away to Nigeria where they will be arrested.
Other than the 16 Indian sailors, eight Sri Lankan, one Polish and one Filipino national have also been arrested by the Equatorial Guinea authorities.
Why Were The Sailors Arrested?
Tanuj Mehta, one of the sailors who have been detained, narrated what happened on the night of August 8 to his brother over a phone call.
His brother Tushar Mehta told BOOM that the crew of MT Heroic Idun (a large crude oil carrier) were instructed by the company to go to Nigeria AKPO terminal to load oil. "On reaching the terminal, the loading operation got delayed for a few hours. The anchoring was tough because of the water capacity," he said.
"They were drifting and waiting for the confirmation for the loading operation," he said.
During this time, an unidentified craft that claimed to be of the Nigerian Navy approached the ship, Tanuj told his brother.
Nigeria is one of the hubs of piracy, he said. In order to confirm that the craft is from the Nigerian port, there is a system called Automatic Identification System (AIS). "The craft had not switched on the AIS and that was an indication for the captain that it might be a pirate boat," he said.
He said that when the captain failed in getting confirmation on the AIS, they started heading outwards towards the sea for the safety of the ship. "The crew sailed out of location at full speed," he added.
The next day the captain was told that the unidentified craft was indeed a Nigerian Naval vessel. On August 12, the craft was cornered by Equatorial Guniea naval vessel and brought to Luba Port on August 14. They were charged for not putting on a flag for identification – a compulsory norm when a ship or boat is in international waters.
Arrested on this charge, they were asked to pay a fine.
"The Nigerian authorities have levelled charges against them that they were involved in the theft of oil. Oil smuggling is very common in the area and Nigerian authorities are working very hard to control it. With this false allegation, Nigerian authorities wanted to arrest them," Mehta said.
The HT Heroic Idun's owner has paid two million euros to Equatorial Guinea as the fine. The Equatorial Guinea authorities have told the sailors that they will be handed over to Nigerian authority.
'They Were Left Without Food And Water'
After the sailors were detained by the Equatorial Guinea navy, their ship was brought to Luba Port.
Out of 26 crew members, 15 were taken ashore on the same day and were shifted to the detention centre at Malabo. Among the 15, nine are Indians. They have since been detained. The remaining 11 members of which 6 are Indians were left on the ship.
In this time, the crew ashore were interrogated by Nigerian officials three times during the detention. Some of the officers also visited the ship at Luba to carry out their investigations. "They have been fully cooperative with the officials and have submitted all proof and documents to both – Equatorial Guinea and Nigerian authorities," Mehta told BOOM.
Despite not being engaged in any unlawful activities, the crew have been detained, he said.
"They were struggling for food and even water for days. Subsequently, the Indian consulate made arrangements for the detainees. Though they have not been physically harmed, their health is deteriorating each passing day and adding mental anxiety," Mehta said.
'We Want To Go Home'
Among the sixteen detained sailors is 26-year-old Roshan Arora from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Arora completed his naval training three years back and joined the company as the second captain last year.
The only son in his family, Arora didn't share the news with his family when they were detained in August. He was hopeful that once the Equatorial Guinea government completes their investigations, they will be released.
On November 3, he finally called his sister and told her that he had been detained. He asked her to reach out to the authorities for their release. "He keeps telling us that he will come very soon but on Thursday evening he had suspected that they would be handed over to Nigerian authority and that had made him anxious," his sister Komal Arora told BOOM.
Since then, the family is worried about his safety and have been appealing to the Indian government to help them in getting released. "I have never seen my brother as anxious as he was sounding that night over call. Our entire family is in distress and we are praying for their safety," she said. "He is our everything and God forbid anything would happen to him, we will die," she said, breaking down.
In one of the videos shot by the sailors, a crew member is requesting people to help them send their message to the government for their release. "Please hashtag Herioc Idun and use our names so that our videos reach the right hand. We require help from the top officials, President and Prime Minister of India. They have to interfere here and help us. We have to go home," the officer said.
Why Are The Sailors Not Being Released?
The family members and state governments are seeking immediate intervention of Indian high officials and the Ministry of External Affairs to rescue the crew members and bring them back.
V Muraleedharan, Minister of State for External Affairs told media persons in Thiruvananthapuram that the ministry is working to bring Indian nationals back home. Among the sixteen Indian nationals, three are from Kerala.
On Tuesday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested to direct Indian diplomatic missions in the Equatorial Guinea to facilitate the immediate release of the sailors.
On Monday, the Indian Embassy in Equatorial Guinea said that the embassy and their High Commission in Abuja are in regular contact with the crew members over phone and are closely working with the authorities for their early release.
In a tweet, the embassy said that all crew members are safe and those in the Detention Centre have been shifted to the ship.
"Since their detention in mid-August, this Mission has been in regular contact with the crew members over phone. We have also had several consular access/ visits to them. We are closely monitoring developments and are actively engaged for an early resolution of the issue," the embassy tweeted.
Captain Tanuj's last message to his brother was that the crew members in the detention centre in Malabo are now being taken on the Equatorial Guniea naval vessel, and will be handed over to Nigerian Navy.
"The ship with its crew of remaining eleven members will possibly be towed to Nigeria next. Further plans are still unknown. No updates have been received from the Indian Consulate and we have no news from local authorities too. Help us please as we do not know what awaits us next," was the message he sent.
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