January 10, 2009 2:00 am

Somali pirates release Saudi oil tanker after ransom is paid

Somali pirates have released a Saudi oil tanker hijacked last year in return for a ransom payment from the ship's owners that one pirate associate put at $3m.

The Sirius Star, carrying 2m barrels of oil, is the largest vessel to be hijacked. Its capture drew fresh attention to the extent of the piracy problem in the vital shipping lanes off east Africa.

The pace of pirate attacks from lawless Somalia inc-reased from August last year after a lull that started in 2006 when Somalia's short-lived Islamic Courts' Union government was ruling the pirate strongholds. Hijack attempts continue today, although their frequency has fallen in the past month.

The pirates holding the Sirius Star were paid a ransom after they reached a deal with the ship's owner, Saudi Aramco, said Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarers' Assistance Programme, which monitors piracy in the region.

The hijackers, who were holding the ship near the Somali port of Haradheere, had originally demanded $25m (€18m, £16.5m), but one of their associates told Reuters that after six weeks of talks they settled for $3m.

Vela International, the Dubai-based shipping arm of Saudi Aramco, declined to comment. But the US navy, which operates one of the biggest anti-piracy forces in the region, said in a statement: "It appears Somali pirates have received payment for the very large crude tanker Sirius Star."

Mr Mwangura said the 30 or so pirates on board had insisted on leaving the ship in three groups in three different locations. The last group was due to disembark yesterday afternoon.

The Sirius Star was captured in mid-November 420 nautical miles south-east of Kenya, far from the Gulf of Aden region where pirates have wrought the most havoc in shipping lanes that lead to the Suez canal.

Pirates are still holding a further 14 vessels and 267 crew, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors piracy. They include the MV Faina, a Ukrainian-owned ship carrying 33 military tanks destined for Kenya.

Michael Howlett of the IMB said the fall in the number of incidents was partly attributable to the international warships sent to the region, including those from a European Union force launched in December.

"The navies should be commended, but we want to see more navies because we believe they are the only effective response," he said.

However, Pottengal Mukundan, his colleague, warned that the decline might be attributable merely to recent poor weather in the Gulf of Aden.

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