Mogadishu, Somalia After reportedly receiving a $3 million ransom dropped by parachute, pirates said they released a captured Saudi supertanker Friday, ending a two-month drama that helped galvanize international efforts to fight piracy off Africa’s coast.
U.S. Navy photos showed a parachute, carrying what they described as “an apparent payment,” floating toward the tanker, which had been held with its 25-member since Nov. 15.
Mohamed Said, a negotiator with the pirates, said by telephone the ship was released and traveling to “safe waters” after the payment of $3 million, far less than the $25 million initially sought.
The owner of the Liberian-flagged tanker, Vela International Marine Ltd., declined to comment on the claim. Combined Military Forces patrolling the waters issued a statement saying, “It appears Somali pirates have received payment for the very large crude tanker Sirius Star.”
The seizure of the Sirius Star, the size of an aircraft carrier filled with two million barrels of oil valued about $100 million, capped a string of increasingly audacious attacks by Somalian pirates. Not only was it the largest ship to have been hijacked, it was taken in the Indian Ocean more than 500 miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrating the pirates’ growing capability. Until then, most hijackings had occurred closer to the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, leading to and from the Suez Canal.
International efforts to combat piracy have increased, and its release comes one day after the Navy announced that a new international force under American command will begin patrols to confront Somali pirates.
More than a hundred ships were attacked last year. More than a dozen with about 300 crew members are still being held by pirates off the coast of Somalia, including the weapons-laden Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina, which was seized in September.
“While the potential release of the Sirius Star is undoubtedly excellent news, we must not forget that nearly three hundred other merchant mariners are still being held captive,” said Commodore Tim Lowe, deputy commander of the new force.
Between 12 to 14 international warships currently patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean at all times seeking to prevent pirate attacks on cargo vessels, according to Cmdr. Jane Campbell, spokeswoman for the Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain.
The area they cover is nearly four times the size of Texas. Despite the naval presence — backed by the ships’ own reconnaisance helicopters and long-range maritime patrol aircraft — four cargo vessels have been snatched in the past month alone.