Families of South Korean Sailors Held by Pirates Ask Seoul for Help

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SEOUL, South Korea -- The families of four South Korean sailors held hostage by Somali pirates for more than 17 months appealed tearfully to the government on Monday to intervene for their release.

The MT Gemini, a tanker owned by Singaporean Glory Ship Management, was carrying palm oil from Kenya to Malaysia when it was seized by Somali pirates on April 30, 2011. Seven months later, the pirates released the ship and 21 crewmen from China, Indonesia and Myanmar after a ransom was paid by the Singaporean company. But the four South Korean seamen remain in captivity in Somalia.

The pirates have since threatened to execute the South Koreans unless Seoul frees five Somali pirates, who were captured during a South Korean Navy's raid on the hijacked chemical tanker MV Samho Jewelry in the Arabian Sea in January 2011. They also demanded compensation for eight pirates killed during the assault.

The South Korean families and media have largely remained silent on the case, respecting the government's argument that publicity would only make the pirates' demands more irrational.

But the families their broke silence on Monday when they called a news conference and broke down in tears in front of television cameras. They accused government officials of telling them that the government had neither the resources to attempt a rescue operation nor a budget for the ransom demand.

Officials at the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said they never made such a comment and they urged the families to be patient.

"We ask President Lee Myung-bak, 'Then what should we families do?'" said Park Hyun-ae, a sister of the MT Gemini captain Park Hyun-yeol, one of the four sailors held hostage.

Kim Jeong-sook, the wife of the 63-year-old chief mate Lee Geon-il, said her husband was on his last voyage before retirement and a grandchild was born since he was captured. Jeong Doo-ae, the mother of the chief engineer, Kim Hyeon-eon, said she would offer herself as hostage in exchange for her son.

The families' tearful appeal came ahead of a presidential election set for December. The country's large labor groups issued statements on Monday calling for government action.

Family members said the pirates had often called their homes until July, threatening to kill their relatives. The pirates posted a YouTube video in March showing the four sailors asking their government to help release them. Speaking at gunpoint, one of them said, "President Lee Myung-bak and other government officials, I know you are very busy but please think about our fate."

The South Korean government wants to avoid setting a precedent of negotiating directly with pirates. But it was doing its best to win the hostages release by working closely with the Singaporean company, which is leading the negotiations with the pirates, said officials at the Foreign Ministry.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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