- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

MOGADISHU, Somalia | Pirates released an oil-laden Saudi supertanker after receiving a $3 million ransom, a negotiator for the bandits said Friday. A photo appeared to show the money delivered by parachute to the ship’s deck.

The MV Sirius Star, a brand new tanker with a 25-member crew, was seized in the Indian Ocean Nov. 15 in a dramatic escalation of the high seas piracy that has plagued the shipping lanes off Somalia.

Mohamed Said, a negotiator with the pirates who held the Saudi tanker, said by telephone the ship had been released and was traveling to “safe waters.”

The U.S. Navy issued a photo taken Friday by one of its air crews of a parachute apparently dropping the ransom from a small aircraft to the Sirius.

The ship owner, Vela International Marine Ltd., declined to comment on the reported release.

But Poland, which has some of its nationals among the tanker’s crew, said it had official confirmation from the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Kenya that the Sirius Star had been released by the hijackers.

A Western diplomat based in Nairobi, Kenya, also said the ship was free, citing the International Maritime Organization.

The U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain would not explicitly confirm the release of the tanker. But Lt. Virginia Newman, a spokeswoman for the Combined Maritime Forces based in Bahrain, said it was likely that “a considerable sum” had been paid in ransom and, “It is expected that the ship will get under way in the next 24 hours.” She would not elaborate.

The tanker was hijacked more than 500 miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, far south of where warships have recently increased their patrols in the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest channels in the world, leading to and from the Suez Canal, and the scene of most past attacks.

The U.S. Navy said Thursday that a new international naval force under American command will soon begin patrols to confront escalating attacks by Somali pirates after more than 100 ships came under siege in the past year.

But the mission — expected to begin operations next week — appears more of an attempt to sharpen the military focus against piracy rather than a signal of expanded offensives across one of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes.

The force will carry no wider authority to strike at pirate vessels at sea or specific mandates to move against havens on shore — which some maritime experts believe is necessary to weaken the pirate gangs that have taken control of dozens of cargo vessels and an oil tanker.

In Ukraine, relatives of crewmen aboard a hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina appealed Friday to international humanitarian groups for help. The Faina was hijacked off Somalia more than three months ago with its cargo of 33 battle tanks. The pirates had originally demanded $20 million when they hijacked the Faina.

Most hijackings end with million-dollar payouts. Piracy is considered the biggest moneymaker in Somalia, a country that has had no stable government for decades. A recent report by the London-based think tank Chatham House said pirates raked in more than $30 million in ransoms last year.

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