, MOGADISHU, Dec 11 – Somali pirates on Thursday freed a Greek cargo ship and its 24 Ukrainian crew after being paid 2.5 million dollars, ending a seven-month hostage ordeal off the lawless country\’s coast.
The MV Ariana was captured on May 2 while on its way to Brazil from the Middle East ferrying 10,000 tonnes of soya beans and had lately been held off Hobyo, a pirate den in the northeast of Somalia.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in a statement said the sailors had been set free. The pirates holding the Maltese-flagged vessel also announced they had released the cargo ship.
"The Ukrainian sailors have been freed. I congratulate the 24 guys, their families and all of Ukraine on this victory," Yushchenko said.
A Ukrainian security source told AFP the pirates quit the cargo ship at around 1215 GMT. "Work is now underway to restart the vessel\’s engines," the source said.
Mohamed Ilkaase, a member of the pirate gang which held the MV Ariana, said the last pirates had disembarked from the vessel after they received the ransom money.
"This ship had been in our hands for some time now and there had been disagreements over the ransom in recent weeks," Ilkaase said. "But finally, we agreed to a ransom of 2.5 million dollars to free the ship."
"The ship is free now. All our men got off the ship. The last seven guys are now on shore," he said, adding that a navy ship was nearby to escort the MV Ariana.
Spyros Minas, the director of the Athens-based All Ocean Shipping company which owns the vessel, confirmed payment of ransom but did not specify the amount.
"Now we are waiting for a warship to escort our vessel," Minas told AFP in Athens. "We will head for the nearest harbour that the ship\’s remaining fuel permits."
Last month, another pirate had announced that the ship was being released for 3.7 million dollars but last-minute snags emerged over the ransom and the pirates held on to the vessel and its crew.
The families of the crew members had pleaded for speedy negotiations between the pirates and the ship owners to release their kin.
One of the two female sailors was reported to be seriously ill and risked death without proper medical help, a Ukrainian doctor told AFP during a telephone interview with the crew in Nairobi two months ago.
The young woman pleaded for help in the phone call, said the doctor, who added that she ran the risk of generalised infection due to a gynaecological condition.
Her condition was not immediately known on Thursday.
Somali pirates are also currently holding a Greek-flagged vessel, the 330-metre crude carrier Maran Centaurus, which was hijacked on November 29 with a crew of 16 Filipinos, nine Greeks, two Ukrainians and a Romanian.
With the end of monsoon season in October, Somali pirates resumed hijackings, attacking foreign merchant and fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean after shifting their attention from the Gulf of Aden when international naval forces deployed to protect shipping there.