Six decades on, MV Dara’s bombing off Dubai remains an enduring horror

The MV Dara, a 120-meter, 5,000-ton ship was a familiar sight in Dubai and around the Gulf. (Shutterstock)
The MV Dara, a 120-meter, 5,000-ton ship was a familiar sight in Dubai and around the Gulf. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 09 April 2021

Six decades on, MV Dara’s bombing off Dubai remains an enduring horror

The MV Dara, a 120-meter, 5,000-ton ship was a familiar sight in Dubai and around the Gulf. (Shutterstock)
  • A suitcase bomb explosion aboard the vessel off Dubai killed 238 people, most of them Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis
  • British investigators later concluded that an anti-tank mine caused the blast that destroyed the passenger ship

LONDON: During the night of April 8, 1961, 11-year-old Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the future ruler of Dubai, was awoken by the sound of a ferocious storm battering the royal palace.

As a child, he had heard the elders of his grandfather’s generation recall phenomenal storms of such savagery that they likened them to the Day of Judgement.

But, as Sheikh Mohammed wrote in his autobiography “My Story” in 2019, “I didn’t pay much heed to their prophetic, doom-laden words.”

That is until that April night in 1961 when “I found my bed in the middle of a full-blown storm, with windows slamming in the gale-force winds that were blowing through our family home … It seemed like the world was ending all around me, what some other cultures call the end of days.”

It was, he wrote, “the beginning of a seemingly endless night,” during which large numbers of his father’s subjects, many of them injured and rendered homeless by the storm, sought sanctuary at the palace.

Outside, Sheikh Mohammed recalled, “there was heavy destruction, with palm trees flying through the air like toys, many houses damaged or utterly destroyed, and fishing boats tossed into the streets of the city. Many families suffered death or injury that night.”

And then, just when it seemed that things could not get any worse, they did. Out on the storm-swept sea, dozens were losing their lives — not to nature’s fury, but at the hands of a ruthless human killer.

Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Rashid had organized men to go out into the streets to help where they could, and to help staff at Al-Maktoum Hospital cope with the waves of injured who were pouring in.

And then, recalled Sheikh Mohammed, “arrived news that froze my father where he stood. British soldiers rushed past the door, scarcely catching their breath. They shouted, ‘Your Highness! There’s a fire on the Dara!’ The world seemed to stand still.”

The MV Dara, a 120-meter, 5,000-ton ship was a familiar sight in Dubai and around the Gulf. Owned by the British India Steam Navigation Co., it was one of four similar ships that for the past decade or more had provided a regular service for cargo and passengers to and from Bombay (now Mumbai) via ports around the Gulf.




The Dara was one of four similar ships that for the past decade or more had provided a regular service for cargo and passengers to and from Bombay, now Mumbai. (File Photo)

The Dara had left Mumbai on March 23 and, after calling at Karachi, Muscat, Dubai, Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait, Khorramshahr, Abadan and Basra, had returned to Dubai on April 7. On board were around 560 passengers and 132 crew.

The ship was anchored off the creek, with small boats ferrying passengers and cargo to and from the shore, when in the afternoon the weather began to deteriorate rapidly.

At about 5:30 p.m., after the Dara was clipped by a nearby cargo ship that had dragged its anchor in the rising seas, Capt. Charles Elson made the decision to put out to sea and ride out the storm in the relative safety of open water.

It was a fateful decision for the approximately 128 dock workers, officials, tradesmen and friends of passengers who had come aboard in Dubai and were unable to disembark before the ship sailed away to weather the storm. In all, about 820 souls were on board that night.




The Dara had left Mumbai on March 23 and, after calling at Karachi, Muscat, Dubai, Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait, Khorramshahr, Abadan and Basra, had returned to Dubai on April 7, 1961. (File Photo)

After the storm began to ease at about 4 a.m. the next morning, the Dara started its return to Dubai. She never made it.

Forty-three minutes later, a terrific explosion in an alleyway on the portside upper deck shook the ship.

“This explosion was of considerable violence,” reported the official inquiry into the tragedy, carried out in London in March and April 1962.

“It blew a semi-circular hole about 6ft wide and 4ft high in the engine-room casing, which separated the engine room from this alleyway; a rather larger hole was blown in the bulkhead on the port side; in the deck above there was a hole about 4ft in diameter ... fire immediately broke out, there was heavy smoke; all electric power was cut off, the steering gear was put out of action and the pipes in the vicinity of the explosion were ruptured.”

Many passengers and even crew panicked, crowding into lifeboats “with a considerable quantity of luggage” even before the call came to abandon ship. Of the six lifeboats launched, two capsized with loss of life.

In “My Story,” Sheikh Mohammed painted a vivid picture of the horror that unfolded as nearby ships, Dubai fishermen and others rushed to the Dara’s aid.

“More than 800 passengers were on board the sinking ship,” he wrote. “The soldiers said that many were killed immediately, but more passengers were dying every minute as they crowded to escape — some crushed to death, others drowning in the raging waters.”

(Then) arrived news that froze my father where he stood. British soldiers rushed past the door, scarcely catching their breath. They shouted, ‘Your Highness! There’s a fire on the Dara!’ The world seemed to stand still.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum

Overloaded lifeboats “were capsizing in the middle of the sea and the strong winds were scattering the boats in all directions.”

At the palace, “we gathered our relatives and a large number of Dubai residents in our home. My father sent all our family, without exception, with lifeboats to try to save anyone they could. We were able to rescue about 500 people that night — a night I thought would never end; one of horror, violence and terrible human tragedy.”

The crippled, burnt-out Dara stayed afloat for two more days before finally capsizing and sinking as she was towed back to Dubai. Today, she lies on her side about 8 km offshore.




The Dubai Voluntary Diving Team has worked with the Department of Tourism and Archaeology in Umm Al Qaiwain over ten months to complete phase one of the excavation of the ship, Dara, by cleaning debris from the location where the ship sank. (Emirates News Agency)

In interviews with this writer a decade ago, survivors and relatives of those who had been on the ship told of the horror of that night.

John Soares, then a 23-year-old deputy purser from Goa, recalled being thrown by the blast from his cabin bunk on the main deck. “I found total confusion on the deck,” he said. “I could see a gaping hole with fire coming out of it.”

Even as he tried to get passengers to put on lifejackets, many leapt into the rough seas without them.

“They were not listening to anybody, they were in a world of their own,” he said. “It was terrible, total panic.”

Decades after the tragedy, he remained haunted by the events of that night — the sight of many of those who jumped breaking their necks upon impact with the water, and the horror of witnessing mothers desperate to save their babies from the flames engulfing the ship, instead throwing them to certain death in the sea.

Many people in the region remain affected by the tragedy. Raja Qaiser of Islamabad, born 12 years after the sinking, recalled how his family still mourned its “lost children” — the four sisters Latifa, 17, Shoib, 7, Jamela, 5 and Hafeza, 3 months — who died on the ship with their mother Maqsood.

As a child, Qaiser would often hear his father Raja, who was not on the ship and who died in 1987 aged 70, speaking of his lost children. Until the end of his life, “he believed they had survived. He would not let anyone cry.”




After the storm began to ease at about 4 a.m. the next morning, the Dara started its return to Dubai. She never made it. (File Photo)

After the tragedy, which affected so many families around the Gulf, the hunt began for what caused the blast.

In 1957, Britain had intervened in an increasingly bitter war between the sultan of Oman and rebel tribespeople. The conflict reached a turning point in 1959 when British special forces and RAF bombers delivered a series of decisive blows against the rebels, in what became known as the Jebel Akhdar War.

The uprising had been crushed, but for a while insurgents continued to plant landmines in Oman, hitting military and civilian vehicles.

In 1962, a special court convened in Britain under the terms of the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act considered the evidence for 15 days and concluded that an explosive — probably a landmine — had been “practically certainly, deliberately placed in the vessel by a person or persons unknown.”

Sir John Hobson, the solicitor general, told the inquiry that the explosion had been a “deliberate and wicked act” of sabotage, the work of Omani rebels.

The explosion, reported the inquiry, had caused “an instantaneous fire which spread with extreme rapidity.”

The deaths had resulted “partly from the explosion itself and partly from the extremely rapid spread of the fire, which asphyxiated an unknown number of persons and prevented the launching of the majority of the lifeboats.”

Evidence was given to the inquiry by British Royal Navy divers who had been sent down to examine the wreck of the Dara.

They had concluded that “there seemed little doubt that the explosion was caused by a high-explosive of approximately the type and quantity used in an anti-tank mine ... detonated deliberately, probably by a detonator with a time device.”

No group claimed responsibility for the blast and no one was ever charged with having carried it out, but numerous suspects were arrested and interrogated by the British.

Sir John de Silva, first secretary of the British Political Residency in Bahrain, told the inquiry that a prominent member of the rebel group had “admitted that the explosion had been caused by his colleagues.”

The unofficial conclusion reached was that the bomb had been intended to go off at Muscat in Oman, the Dara’s next scheduled port of call.

Hidden in a suitcase, the explosives may have been smuggled on board at Dubai by an insurgent or insurgents who had traveled overland to the port from Oman.

In a final twist of fate brought about by a storm of the type likened by the elders of Dubai to the Day of Judgement, the bomber may have been trapped on board when the Dara’s skipper raised anchor and sailed into open water to weather the storm. And, quite possibly, he was among the dead.

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Twitter: @JonathanGornall


Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province

Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province
Updated 51 min 44 sec ago

Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province

Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province

TEHRAN: A 5.9-magnitude earthquake Sunday hit Iran's southwestern Bushehr province, which houses a nuclear power plant, injuring five people but causing no major damage, state media said.
The 10-kilometre (six mile) deep quake hit 27 kilometres northwest of the port city of Genaveh at 11:11 am local time (0641 GMT) and was felt in nearby provinces, Iran's seismological agency said.
State news agency IRNA reported that the quake and several aftershocks caused power blackouts and cut phone lines nearby but caused "no damage" at the Bushehr nuclear complex about 100 kilometres away.
"The minor damage to Genaveh's water, electricity, telecommunication and gas infrastructure has been repaired," the head of the province's crisis management told IRNA.
Iran sits astride the boundaries of several major tectonic plates and experiences frequent seismic activity.
In 2003, a 6.6-magnitude quake in southeastern Iran levelled the ancient mud-brick city of Bam and killed at least 31,000 people.
Iran's deadliest quake was a 7.4-magnitude tremor in 1990 that killed 40,000 people in the north, injured 300,000 and left half a million homeless.


Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt

Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt
Updated 37 min 12 sec ago

Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt

Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt
  • 58 ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to three hospitals in the province

CAIRO: Ninety-seven people have been injured after a train derailed in Egypt's Qalioubia province north of Cairo, the health ministry said in a statement.
58 ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to three hospitals in the province, it said.

 

Egypt’s health minister Hala Zayed is heading to Qalioubia province to check up on those injured in the incident. 
The train departed Cairo at 1:20 P.M. and was due to arrive in Mansoura at 5:00 P.M. 
At least 20 people were killed and nearly 200 were injured in March when two trains collided near Tahta in Sohag province.


Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
Updated 18 April 2021

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
  • National television has published a photo and identified the alleged saboteur as Reza Karimi
  • A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person

TEHRAN: Iran has asked Interpol to help arrest a suspect in a sabotage attack on its Natanz nuclear facility which it blames on Israel, a local newspaper reported Sunday.
National television has published a photo and identified the man as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week’s “sabotage” at Natanz.
The broadcaster said the suspect had “fled the country before the incident” and that “legal procedures to arrest and return him to the country are currently underway.”
Neither state TV nor other media provided further details on the suspect. The intelligence ministry has not issued an official statement.
The ultraconservative Kayhan daily reported in its Sunday edition that “intelligence and judicial authorities” are engaged in the process.
It added that “after his identity was established, necessary measures were taken through Interpol to arrest and return” the suspect.
Kayhan did not specify what form of Interpol assistance had been requested.
As of Sunday noon, Interpol’s public “red notice” list online returned no results for Reza Karimi.
A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender or similar legal action, according to Interpol’s website.
A “small explosion” hit the Natanz plant’s electricity distribution system a week ago, according to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
The Iranian foreign ministry accused arch-foe Israel of an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed revenge.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement but public radio reports said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh last week indirectly accused Israel of attempting to scuttle talks underway in Vienna aimed at reviving a landmark nuclear agreement.
The talks are focused on bringing the US back in to the accord after former president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, and to bring Iran back into compliance with key nuclear commitments it suspended in response to the sanctions.


Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament
Updated 18 April 2021

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

DAMASCUS: Syria is to hold a presidential election on May 26, the parliament speaker announced Sunday, the country's second in the shadow of civil war, seen as likely to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power.
Syrians abroad will be "able to vote at embassies" on May 20, Hamouda Sabbagh said in a statement, adding that prospective candidates could hand in their applications from Monday.
Assad, who took power following the death of his father Hafez in 2000, has not yet officially announced that he will stand for re-election.
He won a previous election three years into Syria's devastating civil war in 2014, with 88 percent of the vote.
Under Syria's 2012 constitution, a president may only serve two seven-year terms -- with the exception of the president elected in the 2014 poll.
Candidates must have lived continuously in Syria for at least 10 years, meaning that opposition figures in exile are barred from standing.
Candidates must also have the backing of at least 35 members of the parliament, which is dominated by Assad's Baath party.
This year's vote comes after Russian-backed Syrian government forces re-seized the vital northern city of Aleppo and other opposition-held areas, placing Damascus in control of two-thirds of the country.
But the poll also comes amid a crushing economic crisis.
The decade-long civil war has left at least 388,000 people dead and half of the population displaced.


Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
Updated 18 April 2021

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
  • Foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus, UAE met in Paphos on Friday
  • ‘Greater Mediterranean region emerging based on new partnerships, initiatives,’ expert tells Arab News

ATHENS: Common interests are bringing together regional coalitions of like-minded countries in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean — favoring stability, combating extremism and respecting international law — in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The latest examples of this diplomatic activism are the meeting of the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the UAE that took place on Friday; and the forthcoming visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos to Saudi Arabia.

The four-way talks in the Cypriot city of Paphos marked the first time that the UAE had participated in one of the multilateral forums that have been created in the eastern Mediterranean since 2010.

In Riyadh, Dendias and Panagiotopoulos will sign a Status of Forces Agreement that will pave the way for the development of a Patriot-2 antimissile battery in Saudi Arabia in order to help the Kingdom in its fight against the Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen.

“The evolving web of regional cooperation is creating a new narrative, one that is cracking the glass ceiling of the prevailing, restrictive narrative of our neighborhood as a region of turmoil, conflict and crisis,” said Nikos Christodoulides, Cypriot foreign minister and host of the Paphos meeting.

The four-way talks will benefit from the recent normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, and could offer an opportunity for the latter to join other regional efforts.

“A partnership that comprises both Israel and the UAE is very important for regional stability,” said Dendias. “We also welcome other regional initiatives undertaken with the aim of regional peace, such as the AlUla Accord, as well as the Saudi initiative that aims at bringing peace to the conflict in Yemen.”

Spyridon N. Litsas, professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in Greece, and at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News: “The meeting of Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel in Paphos signals two main facts. Firstly, the UAE and Israel seem able and willing to jointly contribute to the stabilization of the region. Secondly, smart diplomatic deterrence is taking a more definitive shape, and is oriented toward countering Turkish revisionism in the region.”

Ankara’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, have raised regional concerns.

“Alliances are formed either to balance the threat of an aggressor, or to balance the power of a revisionist actor,” Litsas said.

“Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel prove that alliances can also be formed on the basis of a smart approach toward Αnkara’s atavism. Turkey produces more revisionism than neighboring states can tolerate.”

The visit of Greece’s foreign and defense ministers to Riyadh has been long in the making, having been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Athens wants to enhance its defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as it has done with the UAE.

Saudi F-15 fighter aircraft were stationed in Greece’s Souda Bay airbase last summer, and the two countries have engaged in political consultations at the highest level.

Athens aims to advance its role in linking the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. “A Greater Mediterranean region is emerging based on new partnerships and initiatives linking the Gulf with Mediterranean states,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, told Arab News.

“Greece is in the middle of this important development that’s based on common interests and viewpoints, which include viewing Turkey as an increasingly unpredictable actor and Iran as a potentially serious, even existential threat.”

In February, “Athens established the Philia (Friendship) Forum, comprising Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Tziampiris.

“Greece is coming, without any doubt, closer to several Gulf countries aiming to contribute to regional stability.”