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Philippine ship crew freed by pirates returns home

world Updated: May 02, 2009 15:54 IST

AP
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The 23 crewmen of a Philippine tanker seized by Somali pirates made a tearful homecoming on Saturday after more than five months in captivity and several days drifting at sea even following their release.

Greeted at Manila airport by anxious relatives, the crew of the MT Stolt Strength told of fearing for their lives as the brigands threatened them and sometimes fought with one another. The skipper's wife, Asuncion, said of their arrival, "A thorn had been removed."

The pirates seized the chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden on Nov. 10 while it was on its way to India with a cargo of phosphoric acid. They released the ship and the crew April 21 after $2.5 million in ransom was paid. "Every day, we feared for our lives," Abelardo Pacheco, the 62-year-old skipper of the Stolt Strength, told The Associated Press. "The threat was ever-present because if we made the wrong move ... we would be shot."

He likened being freed to receiving a pardon after a death sentence.

But their release did not bring immediate relief. After dropping the pirates close to shore, the ship remained vulnerable, unable to speed to a safe harbor because it was low on fuel. Pacheco said the crew feared another attack because "we were still in their radars."

German, U.S. and Chinese naval vessels eventually came to their aid, providing food, medicine and fuel, which allowed them to sail to Oman where they stayed for two days before flying home to Manila. Though the pirates have given the impression of scary competence _ attacking oil tankers and cruise ships _ the groups are usually ragtag, and this evident disorganization was a source of fear, Second Mate Carlo Deseo said.

They "did not seem to know what they were doing," he said. He said the crew once had to treat three pirates who were wounded in a gunfight on the ship with fellow pirates. He also patched up a pirate injured while climbing aboard the ship.

Later, the brigand pointed a pistol at his head, demanding his cell phone. The gunman relented when he remembered Deseo had treated his leg wound. "He laughed and shook my hand," he said, describing the situation as funny.

Still, many of the crew said they might take to the seas again. "This is the only profession I know," Deseo said, though Pacheco indicated he would look for another job first. The ordeal almost cost Deseo his faith, he said. "We all prayed and prayed but nothing happened ... but (God) gave what we have been asking for and I was very thankful," he said.