Hijacked Ship Crew Welcomed Home

APA Faina crew member, in camouflage, walking with family members after arriving at the airport in Kiev on Friday.
KIEV -- Twenty joyful but exhausted sailors stepped off a plane and into the arms of their loved ones -- a happy ending to an emotionally searing, four-month hijack drama off the coast of Somalia.

Embracing sobbing wives and parents in the freezing cold outside Kiev's Boryspil Airport on Friday, the crew of the MV Faina -- 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian -- recounted how they were crammed into a tiny room and haunted by the fear of never seeing their families again.

Somali pirates seized the Faina, laden with several dozen tanks and other heavy weapons, off the Horn of Africa on Sept. 25. The ship and crew were released only a week ago after pirates sped off in skiffs with a $3.2 million ransom that had been dropped to the ship's deck by parachute.

In between, hunger, fear, worry and sadness gnawed at the Faina's crew.

Looking tired and frail, most clad in green camouflage-patterned coats, the suntanned sailors said their diet consisted almost exclusively of rice or noodles only once or twice a day. They spent most of their 18-week ordeal caged up in a small cabin and were seldom allowed walks on the deck. "They put us in a cage like this was a safari and nobody came to us, nobody talked to us," said Atrium Girzhev, a skinny, 22-year-old mechanic whose mother, Olga, had trembled with anxiety as she waited for him to disembark from the plane.

Girzhev said the crew tried to keep their spirits up by reading and rereading a small collection of books on the ship.

Olexandr Prisukha, 44, said the pirates treated them roughly for the first month or so, but then eased up after some crew members made progress learning Somali and helped the pirates recover when they fell ill. "We wanted to live, and we survived," a smiling Prisukha said after embracing his wife, Olena, 41. "We're grateful to everyone who took part in our rescue."

Still, he complained that the arms-laden ship was sent into dangerous waters with no military escort and no means of protection against pirates.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko joined family members who greeted the sailors, even though many relatives had accused him of ignoring their plight. "What is most important is that human losses were avoided," Yushchenko told relatives at the airport.

But one life was lost -- the Faina's Russian captain Vladimir Kolobkov died of a suspected heart attack shortly after the hijacking.

The sailors praised Kolobkov's compatriot Viktor Nikolsky, who took over as acting captain. Nikolsky sought to lower the ransom demands and thereby hasten the crew's freedom by explaining to the pirates that the ship's military cargo was old, Prisukha said.

The seizure of the Faina raised fears that its cargo of 33 T-72 tanks and other weapons could fall into the hands of pirates or al-Qaida-linked terrorists in the failed African state of Somalia.

Most sailors said the hijacking had not sparked thoughts of a career change but added that they would not be hurrying back to work.

Asked what he planned to do upon arrival, Prisukha said with a broad grin, "Now? Now I will love my wife."

nA Russian warship has captured three pirate vessels off Somalia, the Navy said Friday. The Peter the Great warship detained 10 pirates on the boats, it said.