NAIROBI, 13 July (IRIN) - The UN World Food Programme (WFP) demanded on Tuesday that the pirates who commandeered a commercial vessel chartered to transport food aid to 28,000 tsunami survivors in Somalia release the ship, its cargo and crew within 48 hours.
Should they fail to release the vessel within this period, WFP would cease all its operations around southern Mudug, where 34,000 people depend on food aid, Robert Hauser, WFP's country director for Somalia, said.
"If they release the ship now - unconditionally and immediately - then we will continue food supplies into their area as normal," Hauser told IRIN.
"If the ship, cargo and crew are not released within the next 48 hours, WFP will blacklist the area," he warned.
The MV Semlow was hijacked on 27 June between Haradheere and Hobyo, some 300 km northeast of the capital, Mogadishu, on its way to the Gulf of Aden port of Bossaso.
It was carrying 850 tonnes of rice for distribution to the survivors of last December's Indian Ocean tsunami.
"We appeal to President Abdullahi Yusuf and the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] to redouble its efforts to get this ship released," Hauser said.
WFP on 4 July suspended shipments of humanitarian assistance to Somalia following the hijacking.
"The decision was taken because of the insecurity of Somali waters along the east coast," WFP said in a statement. "It will be reviewed depending on the release of the detained relief food, vessel and crew."
Negotiations for the release of the ship were continuing between officials from the TFG and the hijackers, but Hauser said not much progress had been made. He accused the TFG of doing little to resolve the crisis.
"What I really have a problem with is that, at a time when the whole world is helping Somalia to become a good country again, the TFG is doing very, very little - if anything - to end this hostage-taking and to avoid similar incidents," he remarked.
Hauser said the sea had become turbulent and there was a real risk of the vessel being tossed to the shore by the waves; the crew also risked running out of fresh water and food.
The vessel set sail from the Kenyan port of Mombasa on 23 June under a Sri Lankan captain and a crew that included a Tanzanian engineer and eight Kenyans.
The Indian Ocean tsunami devastated large swathes of northeastern Somalia's coastline, particularly a stretch of about 650 km between Hafun and Garacad in the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland.
Relief sources said around 150 people died when the tsunami slammed into the coastline, leaving 54,000 in need of emergency assistance.
Hauser said WFP had just 4,000 tonnes of food stocks remaining in Somalia, which would run out in two weeks if the hijacked replenishments did not reach the area.
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