AFP - Somali pirates on Thursday freed a Ukrainian ship they had held since September with battle tanks and other weaponry on board after receiving a ransom of more than three million dollars.
The release of the ship and its crew of 20 seamen -- a Latvian, two Russians and 17 Ukrainians -- marked the end of one of the longest and most dramatic sea-jackings in recent years.
"We have released MV Faina. There were only three boys remaining on board and they delayed the release for one hour, but now the ship is free," Sugule Ali, a spokesman for the pirates, told AFP by phone.
"The ship and the crew members are in good shape because our boys expended tremendous efforts to protect them. We fed them well."
Pirates in the town of Harardhere, off the coast of which the MV Faina had been held since its capture on September 25, said more than three million dollars in ransom were paid.
"The deal was 3.5 million dollars (2.7 million euros). The owners of the ship wanted to pay only one million but we resisted," said one pirate on condition of anonymity.
Sugule Ali confirmed a ransom was paid but would not reveal the amount, describing it only as "not huge... something to cover our expenses."
The Ukrainian presidency also confirmed the ship's release in a statement and said the vessel had resumed its journey to its initial destination, the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
"On February 4, the ship was freed after a very difficult operation carried out by the Ukrainian special services in cooperation with foreign special services," the office of President Viktor Yushchenko said.
It was unclear what part the special services played but according to sources close to the pirates, the ransom money was flown from Nairobi and dropped to the pirates by parachute at approximately 1200 GMT on Wednesday.
The sources said the air-dropped capsule contained 3.2 million dollars.
"Somali pirates are very quick at counting money, they have equipment. Three million dollars is a matter of 15 minutes, but there can be disagreements between them," said one source close to the case, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the final stages of the ransom negotiations, no fewer than 50 pirates were on board the ship and fishermen, elders and other witnesses in Haradhere said they saw the first groups return from the ship early Thursday.
The Faina's capture was one of the longest and most high-profile hijackings since Somali piracy surged in 2007.
The vessel's captain died, apparently of natural causes, two days after the ship was seized in the Indian Ocean.
Pirates had initially demanded 35 million dollars to release the ship but talks were slow to start in earnest with the Ukrainian ship owners, following threats of military action.
"We were fed up with the Faina," said Ahmed Mohamed Abdi, one of the pirates, shortly after receiving his share.
"There was a time we thought of releasing the ship without any payment on humanitarian grounds but we spent a lot of borrowed money on khat cigarettes, coca cola, mineral water and food," he told AFP.
Controversy still surrounds the intended recipient of the MV Faina's cargo, which includes 33 Soviet-era T-72 battle tanks and at least 14,000 rounds of different types of ammunition.
After the vessel's seizure in September, Kenya claimed the weaponry was for its armed forces but several sources have since revealed that the cargo was intended for the government of South Sudan.
According to organisations monitoring sea piracy, Somali pirates hijacked at least 49 foreign vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean last year, raking in tens of millions of dollars in ransom money.
The release of the Faina brings to at least 13 the number of foreign ships still held by Somali pirates.
In January, the same group that captured the Faina released the Sirius Star, a 330-metre Saudi-owned oil tanker they had seized in November.