Somali pirates release Saudi tanker

Somali pirates said Friday they had freed a Saudi-owned supertanker, the Sirius Star, captured back in November. After lengthy negotiations, the pirates are thought to have made off with a $3 million ransom.


AFP - Somali pirates said Friday they had freed a Saudi-owned supertanker, whose capture nearly two months ago caused panic in international shipping and spurred the world into tougher anti-piracy action.

The 330-metre Sirius Star, owned by the shipping arm of oil giant Saudi Aramco, was seized far off the east African coast on November 15, in what was the pirates' most daring attack and largest catch to date.

"All our people have now left the Sirius Star. The ship is free, the crew is free," Mohamed Said, one of the leaders of the pirate group, told AFP by telephone from the pirate lair of Harardhere.

"There were last-minute problems but now everything has been finalised."

Sahafi Abdi Aden, another of the group's leaders speaking from the same town on Somalia's Indian Ocean coast, also said the hijacking was over.

"I am in Harardhere now and the issue of the Sirius Star was resolved peacefully. I cannot go into the details of the agreement but I can say that the ship is free," he told AFP.

"No member of the crew or of the pirates was hurt during this hijacking."

The amount of the ransom paid for the ship's release was not yet known. Pirates had told AFP days after seizing the Sirius Star they wanted 25 million dollars (18 million euros) for its release.

Sources close to the negotiations said three million dollars were delivered to the pirate group onshore on Thursday. A dispute briefly erupted between the pirates over how the ransom money should be distributed.

Vela International, Saudi Aramco's shipping arm, would not immediately confirm or deny the news of its ship's release.

"We decline to comment for the moment," a spokesman told AFP.

The US-led Combined Maritime Forces which contributes to anti-piracy efforts in Somali waters stressed that the Sirius Star's release was only a small step in stemming the phenomenon.

"The men who attacked the ship and held the crew hostage are armed criminals and consequently, we must remain steadfast in our efforts to address the international problem of piracy," said Commodore Tim Lowe, deputy CMF commander in a statement.

The Sirius Star was manufactured in South Korea and delivered last year. It is believed to be worth around 150 million dollars and its cargo was estimated at the time of the hijacking at 100 million dollars.

The crew of the Sirius Star is made up of 25 people from Britain, Croatia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Poland, where the ship's captain hails from.

Pirates operating off Somalia's coast, in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, have carried out more than 130 attacks in 2008 alone, turning the region into the world's most dangerous waters.

The capture of the Sirius Star, which is carrying close to a fourth of top world producer Saudi Arabia's daily output, sent shockwaves through the world's shipping industry.

The Gulf of Aden is a key maritime trade route, where thousands of ships bottle-neck into the Red Sea before heading to the Suez canal, linking Europe to Asia.

Following the Saudi tanker's hijacking, some companies decided to change their itineraries and send their ships on the longer but safer route around the southern tip of Africa, via the Cape of Good Hope.

With Somalia's pirates -- a rag-tag army of fishermen and former coastguards armed with RPGs, speedboats and grapnels -- threatening world trade, the international community was jolted into action.

The European Union launched its first ever joint naval operation in a bid to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden and escort UN food aid shipments to war-wracked Somalia.

The UN Security Council also adopted resolutions empowering foreign navies to tackle piracy and further plans are afoot to ensure all legal provisions are made for pirates to be arrested and prosecuted.

Yet Somalia's modern-day buccaneers have continued to grow in number and audacity, reinvesting ransom money into better equipment and apparently benefitting from an expanding network.

The capture of the Sirius Star also raised the spectre of an environmental disaster, should the hijackers decide to turn the ship into a weapon or foreign navies attempt to release it by force.

Somali pirates still hold 16 vessels and more than 300 crew members.

Among them is the MV Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 battle tanks which was seized in September last year.

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