NAIROBI, November 16 – Somali pirates released a Japanese chemical tanker and its crew, but seized another one in the Gulf of Aden, despite the presence of several warships patrolling the area, officials said Sunday.,
They released the Stolt Valor and its crew of 18 Indians, two Filipinos, a Russian and Bangladeshi, said Andrew Mwangura who runs the Kenya chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Programme. The vessel had been seized on September 15.
"The ship was released on Saturday," he told AFP.
An Indian maritime official confirmed the release, said the crew were in good health and the freighter was headed to Mumbai.
"They are safe, they have been released. It will be another 40 hours until they reach the safe zone and another three days for them to reach India," National Union of Indian Seafarers (NUIS) spokesman Sunil Nair told AFP by telephone from Mumbai.
"They should be coming back to Mumbai either by plane or by sea. They are moving towards the nearest port. They are all physically fit."
Seema Goel, whose husband, Prabhat, is captain of the vessel, said she had been contacted by the ship’s Japanese owners. The ship would reach India in four to five days, she said.
The ship is registered in Panama to Ocean Carrier Transit, which owns 12 other freighters, although the owner is Japan’s Central Marine, officials said.
Nair confirmed that a ransom had been paid. The pirates had demanded payment of 2.5 million dollars but he said he didn’t know whether the entire amount had been paid.
NUSI secretary general Abdulgani Y. Serang said a ransom had "definitely" been paid, but he declined to say how much, Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Indian maritime unions had previously complained that the government in New Delhi had failed to secure the ship’s release. Its members had threatened to refuse to sail in the pirate-infested waters unless action was taken.
But as the Stolt Valor headed home, Mwangura reported that Somali pirates had seized another vessel, the 20,000-ton Japanese ship, "Chemstar Venus", in another attack the previous day.
"The ship was hijacked on Saturday," about 150 kilometres east of the Gulf of Aden, he added.
The freighter had a crew of 18 Filipinos and five South Koreans, Mwangura added.
South Korea, India and several other nations are considering sending warships to the region, after a number of ships and fishing trawlers from Asia were hijacked and only released after ransoms were paid.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, at least 83 ships have been attacked off Somalia since January, of which 33 were hijacked. Of those, 12 vessels and more than 200 crew were still in the hands of pirates.
Last week, the European Union launched a security operation off the coast of Somalia to combat growing acts of piracy and protect ships carrying aid agency deliveries. It is the EU’s first-ever naval mission.
Dubbed Operation Atalanta, the mission, endorsed by the bloc’s defence ministers at talks in Brussels, is being led by Britain, with its headquarters in Northwood, near London.
Pirates are well organised in the area where Somalia’s northeastern tip juts into the Indian Ocean, preying on a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which an estimated 30 percent of the world’s oil transits.
They operate high-powered speedboats and are heavily armed, sometimes holding ships for weeks until they are released for large ransoms paid by governments or owners.
NATO warships, along with ships and aircraft from several other nations have been deployed in the region to protect commercial shipping.
Somalia has lacked an effective government since the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre touched off a bloody power struggle that has defied numerous attempts to restore stability.