Pakistanis adrift

Twenty-three Pakistani sailors with little food and fuel have been adrift in the Gulf of Mexico since November. After the ship´s owners, Karachi´s Tri-Star Shipping Lines, stopped paying the seamen´s wages in March 1998, and later the ship´s bills, the Delta Pride had docked for five months at the port of Tampico, Mexico. The captain of the ship, Maqsood Ahmed, had to use the ship documents, and the sailors´ IDs, as collateral to purchase essential food and fuel on credit. When the captain finally decided to flee Tampico under cover of darkness in November, the ship had accumulated debts running into thousands of dollars.

The old ship straggled across 500 km of sea and reached Brownsville, Texas, where it was stopped offshore by the coast guard on account of its rundown look and missing documentation. Since then the US coast guard and shipping agents have been trying to resolve the mess. Meanwhile, Global Ship Services of New Orleans has provided USD 15,000 which has enabled the crew to restore electricity on the ship and also buy food to last until the third week of December. "Thanks to Global Ship Services and help from some charities including the local Pakistani community, the Pakistani drifters are in a somewhat better condition now than they were when the Pakistani prime minister was vacationing in Florida a few weeks ago," says Mutahir Kazmi, chairman of the Chicago-based Pakistan Human Rights Watch. This was reference to the fact that at around the time that the Delta Pride was sneaking out of Tampico, Nawaz Sharif was sightseeing in Disneyland with his entourage of 126 officials.

Harry Lall of Global Ship Services says that it will take USD 300,000 to settle the Mexican debt, pay wages to the crew, reimburse Global Ship Services and conduct the necessary repairs to make the ship seaworthy again. Meanwhile, a Pakistani shipping agent in New Orleans is desperately seeking a buyer for the 225-metre Delta Pride. But the ship, bought for USD 3.2 million with a loan from Pakistan's Allied Bank, is not expected to fetch more than scrap value in its present condition. The owners cannot afford to bring the ship back or do not see any profit in it. They have simply abandoned the ship on the open seas.

The Delta Pride now lies off the southern tip of Texas with no cargo, no manifest, no fuel, no marine and medical supplies, and unable to journey back to Pakistan. It is not that the Pakistani authorities are unaware of the tragic plight of the ship. Several US newspapers, national public radios and Internet newspapers have carried the story. SOS messages have been flashing on the Internet. According to Kazmi, an appeal had been sent to the Prime Minister Sharif by his organisation on 23 December but it was not even acknowledged. The appeal was emailed to Sharif's personal email address as also to the Pakistani ministry of information.

So far, the only official statement has come from the Pakistani consul general in Los Angeles, Aziz Uddin Ahmed, who told The New York Times that the government has asked Allied Bank to resolve the problem. That, it seems, is as far as the government is willing to go.

Commented a bitter Kazmi, "Cutting some corners during the prime minister's pleasure trip could easily have saved the 300,000 dollars that would have put the unfortunate crew members on a flight back home."

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