By S. M. Hali

Thursday June 23, 2011 was a red letter day for Pakistan. A country which is accused of harbouring, aiding and abetting terrorists, despite being the foremost victim of terror attacks, ransomed, rescued and safely transported 22 sailors belonging to various nationalities, and handed them over to their relatives or their diplomatic missions for onwards dispatch home. The plight of the crew members of Egyptian origin cargo vessel MV Suez, a merchant vessel carrying a cargo of cement bags from Karachi, Pakistan to Eretria, is well documented.

On August 2, 2010, as the merchant vessel sailed through the Gulf of Aden, it was attacked and commandeered by Somali Pirates. Under the command of Pakistani Captain Syed Wasi Hassan, the ship’s 22-member crew comprised 11 Egyptians, 6 Indians, 4 Pakistanis and a Sri Lankan. The pirates demanded US $ 20 million as ransom or threatened to kill the crew of MV Suez. The ship’s owners were able to raise only 1 million Dollars thus Sindh Governor Dr. Ishrat-ul-Ibad and human rights activist Ansar Burney jumped into the fray and negotiated with the pirates to pay sum of US $ 2.1 million. Perhaps they were moved by the tears of Laila Wasi, the twelve year old daughter of the Ship’s Captain, who declared on Pakistani media channels that if required she would sell her kidneys to get her father freed.

India, which had six crew members amongst the captives, was approached by the families of the sailors. Initially, Indian Minister of External Affairs S. M. Krishna made most of the incident on media and got a number of philanthropists and Indian tycoons to pledge large amounts of money. However, when they saw Pakistan taking the lead, they all backed out despite the desperate pleas of sailors’ families because harrowing tales of the pirates threatening execution of the sailors were reaching them. The Indian government remained unmoved but Pakistan continued its solo efforts. Once the requisite funds were raised, Pakistan Navy joined in the humanitarian effort through its operation “Umeed-e-Nau”. PN chipped in at two stages; it dispatched teams of Naval Special Operation Force (NavSOF), Navy Medical Teams along with medical supplies and food provisions via the PNS Babur. During the stage-I, the vessel was again attacked by the pirates to hijack the vessel but, PNS Babur repulsed the attack successfully. India, which so far had borne nothing but criticism owing to the callousness of its government, nearly caused an international incident, by not only hampering humanitarian operations being carried out by PNS Babur for MV Suez, but sending its warship INS Godavari, which undertook dangerous maneuvers that resulted in brushing of the sides. There was further twist to the tale, when the Captain of MV Suez declared the vessel unfit for further operations as it developed electrical problems and started listing. Pakistan Naval Chief heeded the SOS pleas and tasked PNS Babur to take the crew of the ill fated MV Suez on board, who were later transferred to a PN Frigate Zulfiquar, which safely brought the crew to Karachi, where they received a tumultuous welcome by the Sindh governor, who also hosted a reception in their honour and showered them with gifts before their return to freedom after nearly eleven months.

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Now contrast with the fate of five Pakistani crew members of an Iranian fishing trawler Al-Murtuza, who were captured by Somali pirates in December 2010, but rescued by Indian Navy two months earlier, 290 nautical miles from Lakshadweep. During that time, the Indian navy rounded up 106 pirates in several raids and also rescued 70 hostages, belonging to Thailand, Philippines, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, Myanmar and Pakistan. All other nationalities were allowed to go home but the Pakistanis were held back under one pretext or the other. Initially the Pakistani High Commission was not permitted to proceed to Mumbai, then diplomatic hurdles were created, while the five Pakistani sailors continued to suffer incarceration at the Yellow Gate police station, where they were looked after by a few good Samaritans. Photographer-cum-social worker Parvez Sheikh, a local restaurant owner, who supplied their meals and actor Pooja Bhatt and film director Mahesh Bhatt went out of their way to help the Pakistani sailors establish contact with their High Commission and pressurize the Indian Home/Foreign Ministries to authorize their movement and return. On the other hand, Pakistan did not differentiate between the nationalities of the crew of MV Suez, even Indians, who were in a majority. Indian obduracy and Pakistan’s magnanimity are in sharp contrast.