SUEZ, Egypt — A group of Egyptian fishermen who were kidnapped by pirates off the Somali coast four months ago and managed to overpower their captors sailed home to a hero’s welcome on Sunday, but some details of their dramatic escape remained a mystery.
Wearing brand new tracksuits, the nearly three dozen fishermen disembarked in the port city of Suez into the waiting arms of hundreds of relatives and friends, as traditional Egyptian drummers and dancers performed in the background. One mother fainted from the joy of seeing her son return.
“We were very sad, and I was crying for the past months,” said 21-year-old Nagwa Ibrahim, who was at the port with her young son to welcome home her husband. “Now we are so excited, and I just can’t believe that he will be back with us.”
The fishermen, whose two vessels were hijacked in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, spoke freely of how harrowing the experience had been, but were cagey about exactly how they managed to overpower their captors and seize eight of them, who they brought back to Egypt to stand trial.
“There were days we didn’t think we’d survive,” said Syed Sobhi, a 20-year-old fisherman from Kafr el-Sheik, 110 miles north of Cairo. “We were so humiliated and went to sleep hungry every day.”
The pirates initially demanded millions of dollars to free the captives but eventually lowered their ransom demand to $800,000.
When pressed on how they managed to escape, Sobhi he said they were aided by Somali gunmen who boarded the ship and helped attack the pirates — corroborating the version of events provided by the owner of one of the boats, Mohammad Nasr, who said the owner of the second vessel, Hassan Khalil, hired the Somalis.
But Khalil, who was present at Sunday’s homecoming, denied he hired the gunmen. He refused to comment on Nasr’s claim that he paid the pirates a down payment of $200,000 in order to board his boat, Momtaz 1, and set in motion the rescue plan. Khalil said any ransom paid was a “secret matter.”
Nasr has said that once on the boat, Khalil signaled to the captive fishermen to distract the pirates while the Somali gunmen clambered on board. They succeeded in killing two of the pirates and taking eight others hostage, he said.
Osama Watan, a 34-year-old fisherman who is also from Kafr el-Sheik, also denied that Somali gunmen helped the captives, saying they waited for a moment when the pirates were resting to stage their attack.
“One of us who delivered their lunch signaled to us when they had laid down their weapons,” said Watan. “That’s when we knew it was time to either attack or be killed. The rest was taken care of by God.”
It was unclear why the fishermen were reluctant to talk about their escape and provided conflicting stories. But some suspect possible pressure from the Egyptian government, which has been criticized by some newspapers and politicians as having done nothing to help the fishermen.
“It’s not fair for the government to come now and claim glory for this rescue,” said Mohammad Essawy, a member of parliament who was in Suez because six of the fishermen were from his province of Dakahliya, 75 miles northeast of Cairo.
Essawy became frustrated when the fisherman were kept at sea until all the dignitaries had arrived at the port — including a final governor who emerged from his black Mercedes well-perfumed and in a tailored suit.
“Everyone in the government now wants to make it seem like they are the saviors,” said Mohammad Matar, whose cousin was working on the Momtaz 1. “These people saved themselves by themselves.
Matar said he had been in touch with his cousin, Sami, and the captain of the boat since they were kidnapped, and they both told him that “Khalil hired 11 Somalis who helped the Egyptians ambush the Somali pirates.”
Sobhi, the fisherman, said officials took the captured pirates off the boat before they reached Suez.
Salahuddin Ghoneim, secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party in Damietta, some 110 miles northeast of Cairo, said the pirates would be interrogated and tried in Egypt.
Pirate attacks worldwide more than doubled in the first half of 2009 amid a surge in the Gulf of Aden and the east coast of Somalia, according to an international maritime watchdog.
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OPINION: Navy sharpshooters can't end the Somali crisis
"But it’s more than a money grab that drives the pirates — it’s
the never-ending Somali crisis," Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote in this April 23, 2009, Banner op-ed. "The U.N. has described the present
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since the early 1990s, while the U.N.’s Food Security and Analysis Unit
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