MOGADISHU, Somalia – A South African and Italian couple held hostage for 20 months after being kidnapped by Somali pirates have been freed, Somalia's defense minister said Thursday. The couple was among the longest-held by Somali pirates.
South African Deborah Calitz and Italian Bruno Pelizzari smiled but appeared exhausted at a news conference at the presidential palace in Mogadishu.
"We are very happy to get our freedom again," Calitz said, speaking haltingly. "We are so happy today and to join our families again."
The two were kidnapped in October 2010 from a yacht off the southeastern coast of Africa. Their pirate captors originally demanded a ransom of $10 million.
Kerri-Ann Cross, Calitz's 21-year-old daughter, said: "All I know is that she is safe. I am so happy." Cross, speaking by phone from Pretoria, South Africa, said she hadn't yet spoken to her mother by mid-day Thursday and didn't have any additional information.
The couple's 20-month captivity is among the longest periods hostages have been held by pirates. When Somali pirates first began attacking ships off East Africa in about 2005, they attacked large container ships. But as those vessels improved their on-board defenses, pirates began attacking more vulnerable private yachts. An international flotilla of warships patrols waters off Somalia, leading to a decrease in pirate attacks over the last year.
Somali Defense Minister Hussein Arab Isse credited Somali security forces with helping with the couple's release, but he did not say that the pair had been rescued. He also declined to say if a ransom was paid. Most pirate hostage cases end with payment of multi-million dollar ransoms.
South Africa's government said it is gratified at the couple's release and expressed its gratitude to Somalia's government for helping with the release. South Africa also thanked the government of Italy for its role.
"Arrangements are being made for the return of the couple to South Africa," the South African statement said.
The European Union Naval Force says Somali pirates currently hold seven ships and 213 hostages. The EU force says 25 ships were hijacked last year, down from 47 in 2010. Only five ships have been hijacked in 2012, an indication that on-board defenses and the international patrols are succeeding against pirate attacks.
The EU Naval Force saw its mandate expand earlier this year and is now allowed to carry out attacks on the Somali coast against suspected pirates.
Associated Press reporter Kim Chakanetsa in Johannesburg, South Africa contributed to this report.