Wild end to Saudi supertanker saga

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The Saudi oil supertanker captured by Somali pirates took to sea Saturday, a minister said, after being released for a suspected multi-million-dollar ransom by its captors, six of whom drowned in the operation.

The owner of the Sirius Star, Vela International, confirmed the ship's release and that all 25 crew had survived the two-month ordeal, but refused to comment on whether a ransom had been paid.

"We are very relieved to know that all the crew members are safe and I am glad to say that they are all in good health and high spirits," Vela's chief executive Saleh K'aki said in a statement.

Sources close to the negotiations said three million dollars were delivered to the pirate group onshore on Thursday.

The 330-metre Sirius Star, owned by the shipping arm of oil giant Saudi Aramco, was seized far off the east African coast on November 15, in what was the pirates' most daring attack and largest catch to date.

Saudi oil minister Ali al-Nuaimi said Saturday the supertanker with its 100-million-dollar cargo of crude oil had "now set sail and is making its way out of Somali territorial waters."

At the same time, another group of Somali pirates released a Hong-Kong registered cargo ship chartered by Iran which was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in November, Iran's state broadcaster reported on Saturday.

It said the vessel named Delight carrying 36,000 tonnes of wheat was released on Friday evening and was sailing towards the Iranian coast, but also did not say whether any ransom was paid.

Six pirates involved in the hijacking of the Sirius Star, however, drowned when the small boat they used after leaving the vessel capsized. Some 300,000 dollars of the alleged ransom money was on board and is now missing, the pirate leader told AFP in Nairobi.

"The small boat that was carrying those killed and eight who survived was overloaded and at high speed as we are told by the survivors; they were afraid of a chase from outsiders (foreign navies) who invaded Somalia waters," Mohamed Said said by telephone from Harardhere, 300 kilometres (200 miles) north of Mogadishu. He added that four other pirates were also missing.

Haradhere resident Mohamud Aden told AFP the capsize was an accident.

"The pirates were full of joy and partially frightened by the presence of foreign war machines and overspeeding," he said. "That was a tragedy for the pirates."

The pirates did not give the exact sum of the suspected ransom -- after originally demanding 25 million dollars -- while the shipowner declined any comment.

"I can't comment on that kind of information," a Vela spokesman told AFP.

News of the ship's release first emerged on Friday but Vela had been tight-lipped until Saturday's statement.

It focused on the safety of the ship's crew which hailed from Britain, Croatia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Poland.

Pirates operating off Somalia's coast, in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, carried out more than 130 attacks in 2008 alone, turning the region into the world's most dangerous waters.

Faced with this threat to world maritime trade, the European Union in December 8 launched its very first naval operation to hunt down the pirates.

On Thursday the United States announced it would create a new multi-national force to fight against the piracy plague off the shores of the Horn of Africa country.