NAIROBI, 30 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Armed men on Tuesday commandeered a commercial vessel chartered to transport food aid to thousands of people affected by the 26 December tsunami in northeastern Somalia, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said.
"The ship was going from Mombasa [port in Kenya] to Bossaso [northeastern Somalia]," Robert Hauser, the WFP Somalia country director, said. "It was carrying 830 tonnes of mixed food that had been donated by Germany and Japan."
By Thursday afternoon, he added, the MV Semlow, its Sri-Lankan captain, two Tanzanian and seven Kenyan crew members were still being held at sea.
"Our office in Mogadishu is involved in negotiations with members of the TFG [Somalia's Transitional Federal Government] to ensure that the crewmembers and food are safely returned," Hauser told IRIN.
"We believe they were unaware that the ship was carrying humanitarian aid," adding that they may have thought they had seized an ordinary commercial vessel for ransom.
"We are talking with them at several different levels and are hopeful that the situation will be resolved sooner rather than later," he added.
Hauser said this was the first time WFP emergency food had been diverted at sea en route to Somalia, and added that in future, the agency would try to negotiate an arrangement with Somali clans to ensure the agency had free passage on the high seas.
"Our primary concern at this point is to have the ship's crew, and all the food on board, returned safely to us," he added.
Hauser said unless the food was returned WFP would have to distribute less food over a wider area. "The supplies we have there will not last much longer, and we may have to tighten our belts."
The Indian Ocean tsunami devastated large swathes of northeastern Somalia's coastline. According to relief agencies in the region, about 150 people are estimated to have died when the tsunami slammed into the coastline, while 54,000 were left in need of emergency assistance.
Northeastern Somalia was bady affected, particularly a stretch of around 650 km between Hafun and Garacad in the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland.
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