The Chinese Navy, escorting a Philippine-flagged chemical tanker recently released by Somali pirates, foiled an attempt Monday by armed brigands to recapture the ship on its way to safe waters, a Philippine official said on Tuesday.
Elena Bautista, Philippine Maritime Industry Authority Administrator, said a group of pirates on two vessels were able to close in on the MT Stolt Strength with 23 all-Filipino crewmen, but the Chinese frigate Huangshan thwarted the attack when it deployed helicopters to encircle the area.
"There was a mother ship and another vessel. They were able to reach the Stolt Strength's flanks but because of the decisive act of the Chinese, they drove the pirates away after immediately deploying choppers," Bautista said.
The ship, which was hijacked in November 2008, was freed on April 20 after alleged payment of ransom. More than 100 Filipino seamen on board several vessels also captured off Somali and neighboring waters remain in the hands of their Somali kidnappers.
As of 7:20 a.m. Philippine time (2320 GMT Monday), the Stolt Strength and its crew safely reached their port of destination in Salalah, Oman, Bautista said.
"Together with their families and loved ones in the Philippines, we look forward to welcoming them back to Manila a few days from now. Please be assured that they are safe and sound," she said.
Bautista said the government is already making all necessary arrangements for the crew's immediate repatriation to the Philippines.
Since 2008, more than 200 Filipino sailors have been abducted by pirates off Somalia.
Manila has been in a dilemma on how to provide protection to the seafarers due to the rapid mobility of the seamen and the government's inability to track their destination.
The Philippines is the world's leading supplier of crew, with over 350,000 sailors manning oil tankers, luxury liners and passenger vessels worldwide, exposing them to piracy attacks.
Despite the risks, private companies still see the seas surrounding the Horn of Africa as a cost-effective means for moving goods with as many as 20,000 ships traveling these waters annually.
The Philippines made repeated appeals to the international community to provide protection to its seafarers traversing the dangerous Gulf of Aden in Somalia to avert incidents of kidnapping. It also asked countries with naval deployment in Africa to aid Filipino victims of piracy.
Bautista lamented that Filipino seafarers belong to the "lowest category of nationals" that will be given protection by the multinational naval coalition forces.
"Filipinos are in Category E, meaning we are in the lowest category of nationals that will receive assistance and be given priority by the coalition forces," she said, adding that "we continue to appeal for help and for them to provide escort to ships with Filipino crew."
Two weeks ago, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo approved the proposal of the Department of Foreign Affairs to ban the deployment of Filipino seafarers to Somalia and other waters considered as "high risk zones" amid strong opposition from local ship owners and manning agencies.
Bautista called the ban "unrealistic," saying no ship owner would allow its crew to disembark before entering Somali waters.
She also feared that the ban would put thousands of Filipino sailors out of job.
"The Department of Transportation's position is for the government to reconsider the policy of banning seafarers to Somalia. We don't know how to implement the ban because you don't know where the seafarers will go. If we will insist on this, they could lose their jobs," Bautista said.
Until the Department of Labor finalizes the guidelines on the ban, Bautista said deployment of Filipino sailors to Somalia would continue.