MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somali pirates released an oil-laden Saudi supertanker after receiving a $3 million ransom, a negotiator for the bandits said Friday.
The MV Sirius Star, a brand new tanker with a 25-member crew, was seized in the Indian Ocean Nov. 15 in a dramatic escalation of the high seas piracy that has plagued the shipping lanes off Somalia.
Mohamed Said, a negotiator with the pirates that held the Saudi tanker, told The Associated Press by telephone the ship had been released and was traveling to "safe waters."
However, Reuters reported before they escaped, five of the pirates drowned when their boat capsized.
The ship owner, Vela International Marine Ltd., declined comment on the claim Friday.
But Poland, which has some of its nationals among the tanker's crew, said it had official confirmation from the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Kenya that the Sirius Star had been released by the hijackers.
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A Western diplomat based in Nairobi, Kenya, also said the ship was free, citing the International Maritime Organization. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain would not explicitly confirm the release of the tanker. But Lt. Virginia Newman, a spokeswoman for the Combined Maritime Forces based in Bahrain, said it was likely that "a considerable sum" had been paid in ransom and that "It is expected that the ship will get under way in the next 24 hours." She would not elaborate.
The tanker was hijacked more than 500 miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya. That is far south of where warships have recently increased their patrols in the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest channels in the world, leading to and from the Suez Canal, and the scene of most past attacks.
The U.S. Navy said Thursday that a new international naval force under American command will soon begin patrols to confront escalating attacks by Somali pirates after more than 100 ships came under siege in the past year.
But the mission — expected to begin operations next week — appears more of an attempt to sharpen the military focus against piracy rather than a signal of expanded offensives across one of the world's most crucial shipping lanes.
The force will carry no wider authority to strike at pirate vessels at sea or specific mandates to move against havens on shore — which some maritime experts believe is necessary to weaken the pirate gangs that have taken control of dozens of cargo vessels and an oil tanker.
"While the potential release of the Sirius Star is undoubtedly excellent news, we must not forget that nearly three hundred other merchant mariners are still being held captive. 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 commander of the new force.
Most hijackings end with million-dollar pay-outs. Piracy is considered the biggest moneymaker in Somalia, a country that has had no stable government for decades. A recent report by the London-based think-tank Chatham House said pirates raked in more than $30 million in ransoms last year.
The pirates are trained fighters, often dressed in military fatigues, using speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger mother ships.
The U.S. Navy and other nations have international authority to battle pirates in the open seas and come to the aid of vessels under attack. But forces have been stymied on how to respond to ships under pirate control, fearing an all-out assault could endanger the crew members held hostage.
In Ukraine, relatives of crew aboard a hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina, appealed on Friday to international humanitarian groups for help. The Faina was hijacked off Somalia more than three months ago with its cargo of 33 battle tanks.
Relatives said neither government authorities nor the ship owner are giving them any information about negotiations with the captors or the crew's health.
Pirates and Ukrainian authorities both said in December that a deal had been reached and that the seamen would be released soon. But there has been no sign of progress since then. The pirates had originally demanded $20 million when they hijacked the Faina.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.