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Page last updated at 22:55 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

Saudi tanker 'freed off Somalia'

A ransom is apparently dropped onto the Sirius Star by parachute

A Saudi supertanker that was captured by Somali pirates in November carrying two million barrels of oil has been released, reports quoting pirates say.

A regional maritime group also said pirates had left the Sirius Star, Reuters news agency reported.

A negotiator for the pirates told the BBC a $3m (1.95m) ransom was paid.

A small plane was seen apparently dropping the ransom by parachute onto the tanker. The ship's owner has refused to comment.

The vessel, with 25 crew, is the biggest tanker ever to be hijacked.

Coalition naval forces in Bahrain said it appeared that the pirates on the Sirius Star had received a ransom payment in a container parachuted from a plane.

Reuters later reported that five of the pirates making off with the ransom money had drowned after their boat was hit by high seas.

The audacious seizure of the tanker had drawn fresh attention to the dangerous waters off Somalia's coastline.

All our people have now left the Sirius Star. The ship is free, the crew is free
Somali pirate, Mohamed Said

There were more than 100 reported pirate attacks in the busy shipping lanes off eastern and northern Somalia in 2008.

An international force headed by the US is due to be established by the end of the month to tackle the problem.

On Friday, Kenya's port authorities said a fishing vessel had been attacked and three Indian crew kidnapped, Reuters reported.

Pirates are still holding a Ukrainian cargo ship, the MV Faina, which was seized in late September carrying 33 tanks and other weaponry.

'Usual asking price'

"All our people have now left the Sirius Star. The ship is free, the crew is free," Mohamed Said, one of the leaders of the pirate group, told the AFP news agency.

The Kenyan-based East African Seafarers' Assistance programme said gunmen had disembarked from the tanker and that it was "steaming out to safe waters".

Map of Somalia

Combined maritime forces patrolling off the Somali coast said only that the ship was expected to be on the move in the next 24 hours.

The release took place at midday, according to one of the negotiators for the Somali pirates, who spoke by phone to the BBC's Mohamed Olad Hassan in the capital, Mogadishu.

The negotiator said the pirates had disembarked from the Sirius Star and were heading back to their homes in central Somalia, and the vessel's crew was safe.

The pirates agreed on Thursday night to accept a ransom of $3m from the ship's owners, although they had wanted more, he added.

The owner of the Sirius Star refused to confirm or deny any details when contacted by the BBC.

The Sirius Star was carrying $100m worth of oil- a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily output - when it was seized 450 nautical miles south-east of Kenya.

It was held near the Somali town of Harardhere.

One of the pirates, calling himself Daybad, told the BBC by telephone at the time of the seizure that they had no intention of harming the crew, which included Britons, Saudis, Poles, Croatians and Filipinos.

He admitted they were negotiating a ransom of "the usual asking price", but denied reports it was up to $25m (16.6m).

And he blamed the lack of peace in Somalia and the plunder of its waters by foreign fishing trawlers for their move into piracy.

The ship's captain, Marek Nishky, was allowed to speak to the BBC under the scrutiny of his captors, and said there was "not a reason for complaints".

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