Thu, Dec 13, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Pirates free all members of Japanese tanker crew


Pirates freed a Japanese tanker and its 22 crew members, apparently unharmed, off the Somali coast yesterday, a US Navy spokesman said.

The chemical tanker Golden Nori, seized off Africa six weeks ago, has been released, said Lieutenant John Gay, a US Navy spokesman.

The release came days after reports the pirates had demanded a US$1 million ransom and had threatened to kill the crew.

"All the pirates are off the ship, and the first indication is that all crew members are unharmed," Gay said.

He added that the pirates headed toward the Somali coast. A landing vessel, the USS Whidbey Island, was monitoring them from a visible distance.''

The tanker, carrying crew from Myanmar, the Philippines and South Korea, was seized in late October off the coast of Somalia.

One of the two South Korean crew members escaped and was rescued by a passing vessel early last month.

"We feel so relieved," said Yoichi Oda, the Japanese Transport Ministry official in charge of crisis management.

Oda said the Golden Nori, escorted by US navy vessels, was moving away from Somalia to a safe port in a nearby country. Its destination could not be disclosed, he said, citing the owner's safety concerns.

The ship's Japanese owner, Dorval Kaiun KK, said in a statement that the release was a result of "our persistent negotiation effort, with the help of US and British navies."

On Monday, Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers' Assistance Program, said that the hostage takers had demanded US$1 million ransom and had threatened to kill all 22 crew if their demands were not met.

Oda said he could not comment on the details of negotiations or what prompted the captors to agree to the release.

In Manila, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo was "elated" over the news, according to his spokesman Claro Cristobal.

Redentor Anaya, vice president of SeaCrest Maritime Management Inc, a Philippine company that provided a captain and eight other crew for the tanker, said he was informed that the crew were "all safe."

"I was, of course, very happy about the release of my husband," said Tess Villanueva, wife of Filipino crew supervisor Laureano Villanueva. "I prayed hard that we will all be together this Christmas."

She said her family was informed about the ship's release, but she has not yet spoken with her husband.

The chemical tanker had been anchored off the Somali coast, carrying up to 10,000 tonnes of highly explosive benzene.

The US Navy in late October came to the aid of the vessel, with the guided missile destroyer USS Porter at one point opening fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to it.

The US military has recently intervened several times to help ships hijacked by Somali pirates.

Somali pirates, sometimes linked to powerful local clans, have sophisticated arms and equipment. They have seized merchant ships, vessels carrying aid, and once even a cruise ship.

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