By Katharine Houreld
NAIROBI, Sept 21 (Reuters) – An Iranian sailor held hostage by Somali pirates was dying of malnutrition, a former British army officer who helped negotiate his release told Reuters on Sunday. Three other Iranian hostages remain in Somalia.
“This guy was dying – he looked like a skeleton. He was bleeding internally. He had severe malnutrition. I suspect the others are in a similar condition,” John Steed, a retired British colonel, said. Steed has worked in the region for many years trying to free Somali hostages.
Mohammad Sharif Panahandeh was among 21 crew members of a boat hijacked in March 2015. Eight of the hostages died, five escaped, and Iran freed four last year.
The hostages had been split up by their captors after arguments over money, said Steed. Panahandeh was released without payment because the pirates thought he would die.
“He was released last weekend but we had him in (the northern Somali town of) Galkayo trying to get him fit to travel. A week of trying to get him fit to travel. We had to stabilize him,” Steed said.
“Nobody wants to pay for these guys because they are Baluchi,” he added. Poverty-stricken Baluchistan straddles the border between Iran and Pakistan and is riven by banditry and insurgency.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Saturday that the United Nations and Steed’s humanitarian group, the Hostage Support Partnership, helped with the release.
Mousavi also thanked authorities in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland and in Ethiopia for their help in winning the release of Panahandeh, the state news agency IRNA said.
Three Iranians sailors are still being held, Mousavi said.
“We are happy to announce we have obtained the release of one of the last hostages of Somali piracy … 3 more seafarers remain who need our help,” Hostage Support Partnership tweeted.
Piracy off Somalia’s coast spiked in 2012 but then sharply subsided, mainly because shipping firms put better security protocols into place, including posting lookouts, sailing further away from Somalia, and hiring private security. International warships operating as part of a coalition also helped drive down the number of attacks.
(Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; editing by Giles Elgood)