The Sri Lankan Navy on Saturday freed a Japanese cargo ship held by a group of workers at the Hambantota Harbor to ransom for the past few days to protest against privatization of the idling port through a deal with a Chinese company.
The Sri Lankan security forces fired warning shots Saturday to disperse striking dock workers who have prevented a Japan's "K" Line vessel Hyperion Highway from leaving the port for four days for its next destination Oman, navy spokesman said.
Navy spokesman said armed navy sailors used boats to reach a pier occupied by the workers to disperse the striking workers and the Navy helped cast the ship to the sea.
Vehicles carrier Hyperion Highway - Image courtesy of: Ivelin Dyankov
Captain Akram Alavi said the detention of a ship in this way is tantamount to "piracy" under international law and the Navy, designated as the competent authority had to intervene and free the ship for leaving the harbor.
"We were called in because the action of the dock workers amounted to sea piracy," Captain Akram told AFP. "We went in to make sure that the foreign vessel could have free passage."
Captain Akram said this is the first time such a detention has taken place in the history of a Sri Lankan port. There had been strikes in the harbor but no ship had been detained forcibly, he said.
A spokesman for the local agent for the vessel said that ship's Bulgarian captain and 24 other crew members from the Philippines were safe, but the shipping line was losing money at the rate of $100,000 a day because it had been unable to leave on schedule.
The vehicle carrier Hyperion Highway owned by Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha of Japan, had berthed in the harbor on December 6. Yesterday the vessel was escorted to international waters by the Navy.
Temporary employees of the Magampura Port Management Company (MPMC) employed at the Hambantota Port launched the strike on Tuesday demanding the government to make them permanent employees of the state-owned Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Opposition legislators told parliament Saturday that eight workers were wounded when the navy stormed the main pier, but the government denied there were casualties.
The government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the China Merchant Holdings Limited (CMHL) to lease the loss-making $1.3 billion Chinese-built harbor. According to the MoU, the CMHL will hold 80 percent stake in the company and will operate the port on a 99 year lease.
The port workers oppose the government's deal fearing that privatization of the port may lead to job loss although the government has assured that actions will be taken to secure jobs of the workers during the procedure of assigning Hambantota Port to the Chinese company.
The Ports and Shipping Arjuna Ranatunga, who, according to the Express News had also protested against the deal with the Chinese company on the grounds that the SLPA which owns the island's ports will lose its control over the Hambantota port, assured the job security for the temporary employees and dismissed opposition claims that the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered to sack the employees.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe's argument is that the Hambantota port built with a Chinese loan of US$ 1.4 billion is a white elephant which cannot be turned around except by inviting a foreign company like the CMHL to run it on a commercial basis. When the CMHL runs it on a commercial basis, Sri Lanka will be able to repay the loan taken from China.