6 Keralites on board two ships seized by Britain and Iran safe, efforts on to free them

(Left to Right) Dijo Pappachan, P Prajith, Rajin, KK Ajmal. Photo: Facebook

New Delhi: External affairs ministry is making all efforts to ensure the safe release of Indians, including six Keralites, who are on board two ships seized by Britain and Iran this month as the standoff between the two countries escalated.

Iran's oil-carrying vessel, Grace 1, was seized by Britain near Gibraltar on July 4 while British-flagged oil tanker, Stena Impero, was captured by Iran at the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. According to media reports, both the vessels have three Keralites each on board.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Sunday urged the Centre to take all efforts to secure the release of Indian nationals, including the Keralites on board the ships.

External affairs ministry has said that efforts are on to release the Indians on the ships. All three Keralites on the British ship are from Ernakulam district. One among them was identified as Dijo Pappachan, 26, of Kalamassery in Kochi. The other two are from Fort Kochi and Thrippunithura. Their names and other details were not immediately known. The Fort Kochi native is said to be the captain of the vessel.

Third engineer P Prajith, 33, of Kasaragod; junior officer K K Ajmal, 27, of Wandoor in Malappuram; and second officer Rejin, 40, of Guruvayur in Thrissur district are aboard the Iranian vessel, Grace 1.

The British vessel's Sweden-based owner, Stena Bulk's officials from the Mumbai office had called Dijo's house on Saturday morning, and assured the family members that there was no cause of concern. The officials said that they were in contact with the crew and there was no room for worry.

Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at Bander Abass port, in this undated handout photo. Photo: Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Dijo, who had completed BSc in hotel management, works as the mess man on the ship. He had boarded the ship from Gujarat on July 18. Dijo had called his family members around 10.30am on Friday. He told them that he was on the Iran coast and that the ship would next head to Saudi Arabia.

Awaiting court order

Ajmal, on the Iranian vessel, had informed his family that the crew’s return depended on the verdict given by the Supreme Court in Gibraltar. It was expected that the court would give a verdict within one month on capturing the ship. The court had earlier ordered the ship to be kept in custody for 30 days.

The Iranian vessel, Grace 1, was carrying three lakh tonnes of crude oil to Syria. It was seized off the coast of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory near Spain, by the British marines.

The ship had commenced its journey from Fujairah on May 13. The ship had crossed 25 countries and covered a distance of 18,000km before it reached Gibraltar on July 4. While it was moving towards the Gibraltar coast for loading food items, the British marines, who arrived in helicopters, seized the ship. The phones and laptops of the crew were also seized. These were returned a week ago and the staff were able to contact their families. However, Ajmal's family alleged that none of the central government agencies had contacted them even though it had been several days since the ship's seizure.

The family of Rejin, also on the Iranian vessel, came to know about Grace 1's seizure through some of his friends. They are also yet to get any official communication.

Prajith had joined the Iranian ship about three months ago. Prajith told his family that the laptops and mobile phones that were seized from the staff were later returned.

Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at Bander Abass port, in this undated handout photo. Photo: Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Crew not arrested: V Muraleedharan

Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan has said that efforts were on to release the Indians on the ships.

"Iran has said that it has not arrested any of the crew of the British vessel Stena Impero. All the crew are on the ship itself. Efforts are on to release the Indians," he said.

The MEA is yet to get the full details of the Indians on both the ships.

In a letter to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Kerala chief minister Pinarayiu Vijayan had asked the ministry to share details of the persons aboard the ship so that their families could be helped.

"I request that all possible efforts to ensure the safety of the crew be made and the relevant details of persons may be shared with the state government so that their family members can be contacted and we can be of help in their hour of crisis," Vijayan said in the letter, the copy of which was released to the media here.

Congress MP Hibi Eden, representing Ernakulam constituency, also sought urgent intervention of the Central government for release of the Indian nationals.

Tension escalates

Eighteen Indians are among 23 crew members of the Stena Impero. The rest of the crew include three Russians, one Latvian and one Filipino.

"All the 23 crew members are aboard the ship are safe and in good health in Bandar Abbas port," Allahmorad Afifipour, the head of the Ports and Maritime Organisation of Iran in Hormozgan Province told state TV on Sunday.

A helicopter hovers over British-flagged tanker Stena Impero near the strait of Hormuz on Friday. Photo: Pool via WANA/Reuters TV via REUTRS

Britain had denounced Iran's seizure of the oil tanker in the Gulf on Friday as a "hostile act", rejecting Tehran's explanation that it had seized the vessel because it had been involved in an accident.

The vessel, carrying no cargo, was taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. It will remain there with its crew - 18 of them Indians - while the accident is investigated, Iranian news agencies quoted Afifipour as saying.

The oil tanker was impounded off Bandar Abbas port hours after a court in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar said it would extend by 30 days the detention of Iranian tanker 'Grace 1' seized by British authorities in the Mediterranean two weeks ago on allegations of breaching EU sanctions against Syria.

Another oil tanker, the Mesdar, was also boarded by Iranian personnel on Friday and temporarily forced to divert toward Iran, but later was allowed to continue on its route through the Strait. On Saturday Algeria's APS news agency said the Mesdar was owned by Algeria's state oil company Sonatrach.

The IRGC released footage allegedly showing the capture operation. Filmed from a ship and a helicopter, it shows small craft sailing alongside the ship, troops in balaclavas inside a chopper, and six people descending down a rope onto the vessel.

France, Germany and the European Union joined Britain in condemning the seizure.

(With inputs from AFP & Reuters)