, NAIROBI, Aug 3 – Somali pirates have freed a Malaysian tugboat and its 11 Indonesian sailors after a ransom was paid to end the second longest hostage saga off the coast of Somalia, a maritime watchdog said Monday.
The TB Masindra 7 and its attached Indonesian barge ADM1 had been operating under a contract from French oil giant Total when it was seized eight months ago on December 16, said Kenya-based Ecoterra International.
"The Malaysian tugboat TB Masindra 7 with its attached Indonesian barge ADM1 is free," the non-governmental organisation said in a statement.
The crew of 11 was "all right, given the circumstances", said the statement, adding that "a ransom was paid".
The tugboat and barge had been on their way back to Malaysia from Mukallah in Yemen when the vessels were boarded by pirates.
Andrew Mwangura, of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, said the crew were "safe and sound" after their ordeal and their ship was "now steaming out to safe waters."
He gave no details of the amount of the ransom.
The boat had been moved between pirate hideouts but had been lately held in off Hobyo village in northern Somalia, Mwangura explained.
Small villages dotting the coast of Somalia’s self-declared state of Puntland are the pirates’ main bases.
Ecoterra said a lack of cooperation between the Malaysian and Indonesian ship owners meant the case dragged on for months.
"Over long streches the crew felt completely abandoned. One engine of the tugboat was damaged during the first night of the sea-jacking and provisionally repaired. Vessel, barge and crew therefore are approaching the nearest harbour for repairs and bunker," it said.
The eight-month hostage saga is the second longest ship seizure by the Somali criminal gangs. A Nigerian tugboat and its 11 crew were held for 10 months before their release in June.
Some 200 sailors and at least 12 ships are still being held in the region.
Somali pirates attacked more than 130 merchant ships last year, a rise of more than 200 percent over 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Rough seas and international navy patrols have curbed pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in recent weeks but experts have warned that the end of the monsoon season could see a fresh flurry of hijackings over the next few weeks.
More than 30 ships from 16 nations, including NATO members and the European Union, are patrolling the waters off the Somali coast to try to ensure safe passage for ships heading to and from the Suez Canal.
On July 12, pirates seized a dhow with an Indian crew of 11 and used it to launch a failed attack on a super-tanker in the Gulf of Aden.
The pirates have previously captured the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star and held it and its cargo of two million barrels of crude oil for two months from November 2008.
Gangs armed with rifles, rocket-launchers and grappling hooks attack their prey by launching small and nimble skiffs from larger ships, generally small cargos or fishing vessels they have previously hijacked.