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Filipino Seafarers Top Victims of Somali Pirates

At least 80 Filipino seafarers are being held hostage by Somali pirates - the highest number from any nation. The Philippine government has banned ships carrying Filipino crew members from sailing near Somalia. But as Heda Bayron reports from Manila, piracy is unlikely to stop Filipino sailors from plying the treacherous route.

Until last week, Somali pirates were holding Catherine Boretta's husband. She has been distraught about his condition, after he had been reported to have been injured by a stray bullet. The chemical tanker the Philippine citizen was working on, the MT Stolt Strength, was captured in November on its way to India from Senegal.

But after negotiations between the pirates and the ship's owners, reportedly with ransom paid, Rodell Boretta and his shipmates are returning home.

But at least 80 Filipino seafarers are still in the hands of Somali pirates. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has pressed for more international efforts to secure their release and ordered staffing agencies to ensure that ships carrying Filipino seafarers stay at least 200 nautical miles off Somalia, a country which has not had a functioning government since 1991.

But Nelson Ramirez, spokesman of the Union of Filipino Seafarers, calls the ban absurd.

"It's just for show. They didn't even study the map," said Ramirez. "They didn't ask the labor unions, the seafarers, how is it possible. They sail about 200 miles off Somalia's coast; the pirates are going about 350 miles off Somalia's coast. If someone would violate that one, who are they going to penalize? Are they going to penalize the seamen? The ship owner? Are they going to penalize the manning agency?"

Ramirez says the policy is a knee-jerk reaction by the government, which has been criticized for doing little to help free the Filipino hostages. He says the government has left it to the ship owners to negotiate for the seafarers' freedom.

Cabinet Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita acknowledged government's role has been limited. He says negotiations between the pirates and the ship owners have been more successful.

"Our experience has been that we have not had any casualty from among those kidnapped by the Somali pirates," said Ermita. "So far there have been a lot of successes in the negotiations by the manning agencies and the ship owners."

The International Maritime Bureau says pirate attacks off the Somali coast increased to 102 from 53 in the first three months of this year.

Navy ships from the United States, France, China and other countries have been patrolling international waters off Somalia to ensure the safe passage of ships. Earlier this month, U.S. Navy SEALS freed an American captain and arrested a Somali pirate now under federal custody in the United States.

Ermita says the Philippines will cooperate with any United Nations action on piracy. But the Philippine navy has limited capability to help in the patrols - it is already hard pressed to patrol the country's 7,100 islands.

"At the moment there are no planned or contemplated actions as strong as being done by other countries such as what the French and the U.S. governments have done to rescue their citizens involved in hijackings in Somalia," added Ermita. "We will just continue with the present action of actively looking at the plight of our Filipino seamen and we hope that in our little way we would be able to contribute to hastening the recovery of the seamen."

Ramirez of the Union of Filipino Seafarers says piracy is unlikely to stop Filipinos from working on ships sailing these treacherous waters.

"I have talked to the seafarers themselves who have been hostaged [held hostage] and I told them will you be sailing again? And they said yes, they will. In the near future, there will be more naval vessels that will be protecting them," said Ramirez.

Moreover, seafarers earn more overseas than in the Philippines and there are few jobs at home for the estimated half a million registered Filipino sailors.

For the MT Stolt Strength, its staffing agency says it is willing to keep hiring Filipino crews, as long as they choose to continue sailing.