Israeli and British diplomats set out on Thursday afternoon to negotiate the release of the 12 Israelis being held hostage for three days now by hundreds of Chinese laborers on a remote island in the Caribbean.
The Israelis are employees of the Ashtrom Engineering and Construction firm, which employed the 300 laborers for a large tourism project. The venture, however, was put on hold due to the global financial crisis.
The laborers are demanding Ashtrom compensate them for their travel expenses and missing wages.
Israel's ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Amos Radian, spoke with Ynet shortly after the story broke on Thursday afternoon. Radian said that upon hearing of the crisis he immediately contacted the British consul general in the region, as the United Kingdom has sovereignty over the Turks and Caicos island chain. The Israelis are being held on West Caicos.
"These are British Crown isles, and this is the United Kingdom's jurisdiction. I've briefed the British consul general in the Dominican Republic, and he in turn reported the situation to the office of the governor (of Turks) and instructed the local police commissioner, who was unaware of the happenings, to attend to the crisis at once." Radian told Ynet.
"The British are making great efforts to resolve this matter as soon as possible. We're doing everything to try and persuade the local authorities – who knew nothing of what was happening on that isolated island – to free the Israelis."
"A small police force from the governor's office has arrived on the island to examine the situation, a solution will be found for some of the Chinese, and the whole affair will be over in a matter of hours," said Radian.
The Chinese laborers are refusing to release the hostages until they receive the money promised to them by the manpower company that hired them for the project. A representative from Ashtrom told Ynet that the company had decided in principle to pay the laborers the full amount demanded. The company will also give the hostage-takers the money meant to have been paid by the Chinese manpower firm.
"The company has decided to pay the Chinese laborers everything, even the money we don't owe them but that the Chinese manpower firm charged them in return for sending them here – just to bring this situation to an end," said an Ashtrom representative, adding that the process was complex and was taking some time.
Hostage: We owe them nothing
Moti, one of the project's directors, is one of the Israelis being held on the island. He called on all sides involved to resolve the crisis quickly, while tempers are still running cool. "I'm not willing to be anyone's hostage, and the state should be taking care of us," said Moti.
"The Chinese came to us with demands – but we're not the ones who took their money, it was the Chinese manpower company, and they're not willing to give it back. We're not the ones who owe the laborers – the Chinese contractors are. They have con men in China who take money from innocent laborers as commission for getting them into this project, and then they just disappear. We've paid all the wages we owe the workers, without exception. It's the Chinese company that's evading its responsibilities."
According to Moti, every Chinese worker gave $15,000 to the manpower company in order to get the Caribbean job. When the project went under, the Israelis offered the Chinese their wages and travel fare
back to China, but the workers are now also requesting a return of their original $15,000 fee.
West Caicos, an isolated island accessible only via a 40-minute boat ride from the central island in the archipelago, has no police or security forces, making it easy for the Chinese workers, who have taken control of the single marina, to hold the Israelis against their will.
The Israeli women who were present on the island were smuggled out on a small boat before the Chinese workers encircled the Israeli's living quarters.