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Record Ransom Frees Hijacked Tanker off Somali Coast

A record ransom payment has secured the release of a massive oil tanker seized in November by Somali pirates. Piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia nearly doubled in 2009 from the previous year.

The Maran Centaurus was the second-largest vessel ever captured and was carrying an estimated $2 million barrels of oil.

The pirates claim they received $5.5 million for the ship's freedom, but a separate figure places the amount dropped on the ship at $7 million. Both are believed to exceed any previous figure paid to the Somali sea bandits.

Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program says others involved in securing the deal also reportedly took home a significant sum.

"Later we came to learn that they paid about $7 million, which was dropped on the ship, and $2 million was taken a separate way. I think that $2 million went maybe to the translators and others," he said.

The Greek-flagged vessel had onboard 28 mostly Filipino and Greek crew members who are reported to be safe and in good condition as the ship is escorted to safe harbor.

The record haul has stoked divisions within the competing piracy gangs in the northern Somali area. Armed helicopters reportedly had to fend off surrounding speed boats who were attempting to take control of the ship prior to the drop-off.

The situation is reportedly tense onshore where the pirates are still haggling over the demanded cuts on the payment. Regional watchdog group Ecoterra International says a couple pirates were killed in a gun battle as the cash was being brought ashore.

The number of sea attacks globally are on the rise, driven by the growing audacity and capacity of the Somali piracy business, which accounts for more than half of all pirate activity worldwide.

Poverty, lawlessness, and local grievances over exploited fishing waters fueled the rise of the now-lucrative domestic industry, the massive rewards of which are reported to be causing whirlwinds within Somalia's strong clan-based traditional culture.

The Horn of Africa nation has been without a functioning central government for nearly 20 years.

The freed ship was only slightly smaller than the Sirius Star, which was hijacked in November 2008. That vessel was released two months later after a reported ransom of $3 million.

The sums demanded by the bandits have sharply risen as each negotiated settlement creates a new precedent for payment.

The cargo aboard the Maran Centaurus is worth an estimated $150 million.