The family of a Taiwanese fishing boat captain who was killed in a US anti-piracy operation off Somalia on May 10 is pleading with US officials to “deliver his corpse back to Taiwan.”
That could be a mission impossible for the US, which has said Wu Lai-yu’s (吳來于) burial at sea was held the day following the engagement with the pirates. The US said Wu was “laid to rest in his ship,” the Jih Chun Tsai No. 68, which was sunk off the coast of Somalia.
Wu’s family said the skipper wished to be “buried in his homeland,” which his youngest daughter, Wu Hui-hwa (吳惠華), said she learned from a letter from her father that she received in late May.
Photo: Liu Hsin-de, Taipei Times
“I can imagine the extent my father suffered [while being held by pirates] so that he thought he could die any time, leading him to write the letter,” she said by telephone on Tuesday night after presenting the appeal to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) earlier the same day.
The letter was written in September, six months after the 79-tonne tuna trawler was seized while operating 395 nautical miles (732km) southeast of Somalia’s Cape Guardafui and 900 nautical miles northeast of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, said the deceased captain’s daughter, Wu Hui-hwa, a college graduate.
“Had the economic condition of my family not been such a concern, my father would not have had to travel such a long distance to fish at the risk of his life,” she said. “The last word he gave us was that he wished his funeral rites to be simple and frugal.”
As a fisherman’s daughter, Wu Hui-hwa had been used to a life where she only saw her father once a year. Then, on March 30 last year, her father did not make his usual telephone call home as he always did when he was at sea.
Wu Hui-hwa is the youngest in her family, but she took charge of the effort to secure the safe return of her father.
Those efforts, however, were in vain after her father was “killed inadvertently by ammunition fired” by the USS Stephen W. Groves, a US frigate operating under a NATO-led counterpiracy operation, according to a report released by the US Fifth Fleet.
That happened just a few weeks after her family finally managed to get the pirates to agree to a smaller ransom for 50-year-old Wu Lai-yu, down from an alleged US$8 million, following a year of negotiations.
The US’ report only details the sequence of events during the engagement with the pirates, “and we still don’t know what caused the US to open fire,” Wu Hui-hwa said.
From what they were told by two Chinese fishermen, Li Yaxiong (李亞雄) and Cheung Chiping (張志平), who survived the crossfire and posted the captain’s letter to his family after returning to China, Wu Hui-hwa said she doubted the US had told them the whole truth.
“The two Chinese fishermen told us that when they were taken by the US Navy from the sleeping quarters in the hold, they did not see any pirates, dead or injured people, or blood stains. They saw traces of gunshot residue on the vessel, but the ship seemed to them to be in fine condition,” Wu Hui-hwa said in the written appeal.
Li and Cheung also told Wu’s family that the US Navy did not tell them that the captain, with whom they had been friends for more than 10 years, had been killed and that officers refused their request to tether the Jih Chun Tsai No. 68 to the US ship, she said.
In a telephone interview with the Taipei Times on July 18, Li, who lives in Huian, Fujian Province, said he and Cheung ran down and hid in the hold upon hearing gunshots and that they did not witness any aspect of the engagement.
“After we were rescued by the US Navy, we were transferred to the US ship and kept in the hold. That was the last time I saw the fishing boat. About nine days later, we were taken out of the hold and we boarded a Chinese vessel, which took us home,” Li said.
According to the US report, the engagement started with the USS Stephen W. Groves carrying out a graduated use of force to compel the pirates to surrender. The pirates returned fire, but the reason the US ship decided to open fire remains unclear.
The US report said the operation against the fishing vessel, used by the pirates as a “mother ship,” was to “disrupt further pirate action,” while the US Fifth Fleet said in a statement on July 25 that it was to “rescue” the fishing boat.
Asked by the Taipei Times to elaborate on the reasons that led the US ship to open fire, AIT spokesperson Christopher Kavanagh said on Monday that counterpiracy operations are conducted to deter, detect and disrupt pirate activities.
Since the ship had been captured, the pirates were using the ship to launch other pirate attacks, Kavanagh said.
“Under international law, all states, including the United States, have a duty to cooperate in repressing piracy. More than 1,600 ships are present every day in this area of operations. This volume of maritime commerce is important to the global economy and the international community as a whole,” he said.
Kavanagh confirmed to the Taipei Times that the 19 surviving pirates were returned to Somalia.
“An assessment was made that there was not sufficient evidence to support a successful prosecution for acts of piracy ... in this case,” he said.
The US report said there were 22 pirates aboard the fishing vessel during the engagement, three of whom were killed, two injured and 17 were unharmed.
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