Gunmen have pledged to release the crew of a UN-chartered vessel carrying food aid for Somali tsunami victims which was hijacked off Somalia's coast last month, the shipowners said Monday.
After weeks of intense, delicate and frustrating negotiations, the hijackers got word to diplomats that the 10-member crew would be freed, according to Karim Kudrathi of the Motaku Shipping Agency in the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
"We have had the information (that they will be freed) from the Kenyan ambassador to Somalia but we are still waiting for their release," he told AFP by phone from Mombasa.
"We talked with the ship's captain at 1500 (1200 GMT) who told us that they had not yet left the ship," Kudrathi said, adding that only the crew and not the World Food Programme (WFP) cargo or the vessel itself would be released.
Officials in Nairobi said the gunmen would release eight Kenyan crew members but that the Sri Lankan captain and a Tanzanian engineer would remain with the ship.
"The two will remain at the ship, not essentially as hostages, but to take care of it since no one among the gunmen knows how it is operated," said a Kenyan official who had been briefed on the terms of the release.
The WFP, which chartered the ship and suspended aid deliveries to Somalia pending its release, said it was aware of reports of developments in the hijacking but could not confirm any action by the pirates.
The hijackers stormed the freighter carrying 850 tonnes of Japanese- and German-donated rice about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of Mogadishu on June 27 and had been demanding a half-a-million-dollar ransom for its release.
The WFP has repeatedly refused to pay any ransom and negotiations between the hijackers, Somali elders and politicians and foreign diplomats had dragged on for weeks without any result.
The ship, the St Vincent and the Grenadines-registered MV Semlow, was on its way from Mombasa to Bossaso in Somalia's northeast Puntland region when it fell afoul of the pirates in waters deemed highly unsafe by international agencies.
Both the International Maritime Board (IMB), a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, and the United States have in recent months issued increasingly dire alerts about threats to shipping off the Somali coast.
The IMB said last week that the coast of Somalia, which had seen few attacks for almost two years, has suffered a resurgence of assaults by pirates with guns and grenades, with nine incidents recorded in the past three months.
Earlier this year, the IMB advised vessels not making calls in the region to stay at least 50 miles (85 kilometers), and preferably further, from the coast of the lawless nation.
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Pirate Attacks Drop By 30 Percent In First Half Of This Year
Kuala Lumpur (AFP) Jul 20, 2005
Pirate attacks worldwide dropped 30 percent in the first half of 2005 but the situation worsened in hot spots Indonesia and Somalia which suffered increasingly violent assaults, an anti-piracy watchdog said Wednesday.
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