Pirates hijack ship near India with 31 crew aboard

A hostage ordeal ended for 17 Chinese sailors who returned home after four months in pirate captivity even as pirates overran a chemical tanker near India on Thursday, capturing the vessel and 31 crew members.

The European Union anti-piracy force said pirates took control of the Panamanian-flagged MV Hannibal II while it was traveling from Malaysia to the Suez Canal. The EU Naval Force said the hijacking took place nearly 900 nautical miles east of the Horn of Africa, which is closer to India than Somalia.

The Hannibal has 31 crew on board, 23 of them from Tunisia. The EU said the tanker was carrying vegetable oil.

In China, a group of 17 sailors returned home safely after being held hostage more than four months. The sailors' Somali captors gave them only one meal of boiled potatoes per day, newspapers reported Thursday.

The pirates were paid an undisclosed amount of money in ransom after the Shanghai-based ship's owner mortgaged his home and all his shipping company shares to raise funds, the Beijing Daily said.

The group arrived in Shanghai on Wednesday on a flight from the Qatari capital of Doha, the paper said.

All were in good health, despite having survived for 131 days on their potato diet and suffering from limited water supplies and poor hygiene conditions. All their belongings, including mobile phones and personal items, had been left on board the ship with the pirates, the paper said.

The sailors were working aboard the Singaporean-flagged "Golden Blessing" on its way to India from Saudi Arabia when an unknown number of pirates seized control on June 28.

The pirates had initially demanded a ransom of $15 million, but that was later negotiated downward after the pirates began showing greater flexibility by the third month, the Beijing Daily said. The final amount paid was not given.

Somali pirates are regularly able to make multimillion dollar ransoms from their hijackings. Hijackings have increased in recent weeks because seasonal monsoons have ended.

The pirates departed the ship once the ransom was delivered and a Chinese navy patrol vessel quickly pulled alongside to deliver supplies and escort the ship into port in Oman on Sunday, the report said.

Two days later, after cleaning up the ship and resting, they flew to Doha and then home, it said.

The report quoted shipping company officials as saying the pirates numbered at least six and appeared to be only loosely organized. It said the two sides communicated by phone once or twice a day until a ransom was agreed to and the hostages themselves were permitted occasional brief calls with their family members.

Somalia has been mired in anarchy and chaos since 1991, and the lawlessness has allowed piracy to thrive off its Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coastlines.

China's navy is part of a multinational force working together to patrol the Gulf of Aden — one of the world's busiest shipping lanes crossed by about 20,000 vessels annually — and other waters off Somalia where pirates operate.