BOSASSO, Somalia, Dec 23 (Reuters) - A ship and its crew of
22 sailors held by Somali pirates for almost three years have
been freed after a two-week-long siege by maritime police, the
government of the breakaway region of Puntland said on Sunday.
The sailors aboard Panama-flagged MV Iceberg 1, from the
Philippines, India, Yemen, Sudan, Ghana and Pakistan, were held
for longer than any other hostages in the power of the pirates,
who prey on shipping in the region, according to the president's
office of the northern Somali enclave in a statement
Maritime police laid siege to the vessel on Dec. 10 near the
coastal village of Gara'ad in the region of Mudug.
"After 2 years and 9 months in captivity, the hostages have
suffered signs of physical torture and illness. The hostages are
now receiving nutrition and medical care," said the statement.
The ship originally had a crew of 24, but two had died since
the roll-on roll-off cargo vessel was seized on March 29, 2010,
some 10 miles from Aden, pirates said.
One of the pirate leaders said they only released the ship
after negotiation with Puntland officials and local elders.
"They kindly requested the release of the ship we held for
three years. Puntland forces had attacked us and tried to
release the ship by force but they failed. We fought back and
defeated them," the pirate known as Farah told Reuters.
Farah did not disclose whether any ransom had been paid for
the crew and the ship, owned by Azal Shipping in Dubai with a
deadweight of 4,500 tonnes.
Pirates rarely release ships without ransom, and usually
raise their demands the longer they hold a vessel, because they
charge for their expenses.
International navies have had some recent success containing
piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Although more than 100 hostages taken off Somalia are still
being held captive, the number of hijackings of ships dropped to
seven in the first 11 months of this year compared to 24 in the
whole of 2011.
Separately, Puntland said a group of eight Puntland soldiers
responsible for briefly trying to sail away with a North
Korea-flagged vessel, MV Daesan and its 33-member crew were
jailed by a Puntland military court on December 22.
MV Daesan, a North Korean ship ferrying cement to Somali
capital Mogadishu, was impounded by the Puntland auhtorities and
fined last month by Puntland authorities who accused it of
ditching its cargo off Somalia's coast.
The soldiers had taken the vessel on Dec. 18.
"Puntland Government managed to return the vessel back to
the port within 24 hours; the soldiers were arrested and will be
brought to justice," the authorities said.
(Writing by James Macharia; editing by Jason Webb)