KIEV, Feb 5 – An arms-laden Ukrainian cargo ship captured by Somali pirates has been freed after the intervention of secret services, the Ukrainian presidency said on Thursday.
"On February 4 the ship was freed after a very difficult operation carried out by the Ukrainian special services in cooperation with foreign special services," the office of President Viktor Yushchenko said in a statement.
"All the members of the crew are healthy and safe and are on board the Faina. At this moment the ship, protected by the US navy, is preparing to travel to the Kenyan port of Mombasa," the statement said.
It was unclear from the statement how exactly the ship had been freed, but media reports had previously said the pirates were paid a ransom of 3.2 million dollars (2.5 million euros).
"We have released MV Faina. There were only three boys remaining and they delayed the release for one hour, but now the ship is free," Sugule Ali a leader for the pirate group told AFP by phone.
"No huge amount has been paid, but something to cover our expenses," he added without giving the exact figure.
The Ukrainian statement said that the Faina’s crew would be given medical attention on arriving in Mombasa and then sent home. Its crew consisted of 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and one Latvian.
The Ukrainian presidency was keen to claim credit for the ship’s release, saying: "From the very first day of this unprecedented event… the process of freeing the Ukrainians and other crew members of the Faina was under the constant oversight of the president of Ukraine."
The ship had been bound for Mombasa when it was seized on September 25, 2008 amid an upsurge of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, where there has been no functioning central government for nearly two decades.
Its capture caused shockwaves due to its cargo of 33 Soviet-type T-72 battle tanks along with other weapons and ammunition.
While Ukraine and Kenya insist the tanks were bound for Kenya’s military, the United States and the pirates themselves have said they were destined for rebels in southern Sudan.
Talks on paying a ransom to the pirates to free the ship had intermittently appeared close to success before collapsing.
In recent weeks the parents of the captured sailors had raised concerns about their health, saying that most of them were being confined in a small cabin and suffering from a lack of proper nutrition.