Somali pirates Saturday released 26 sailors who were captured during a ship hijacking nearly five years ago, bringing to an end one of the longest-running hostage taking cases in the country, officials said.
Sources close to the pirates told a VOA reporter in the region that hostages were released after their captors were paid a $2 million ransom, a claim repeated by one pirate in an interview with a local media outlet.
“We have freed the crew after the agreed ransom of $2 million was paid," a pirate who identified himself as Omar Nur told a local radio station by telephone.
“I can only confirm that the crew have been released and they will be getting out of Somalia on Sunday,” Galmudug ports Minister, Burhan Warsame Igal, told VOA. He declined to give details on the process of the hostages release, and if a ransom was paid.
The crew consisted of members from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Somali pirates hijacked their Omani flagged fishing Vessel, FV Naham 3 in March 2012 roughly 65 nautical miles south of the Seychelles.
More than a year after its capture, the Naham 3 sank and the crew was brought ashore, where they had been held by pirates under harsh living circumstances
The U.N.-backed Hostage Support Program (HPS), which tracks Somali pirate hostages and tries to provide support to them, also announced the release of the hostages.
“We are very pleased to announce the release of the Naham 3 crew early this morning. They are currently in the safe hands of the Galmudug authorities and will be repatriated using a U.N. Humanitarian flight shortly and then on to their home countries,” a statement from the group said
“Of the original 29-member crew, sadly one died during the hijacking and two more succumbed to illness during their captivity. The remaining 26 crew members spent much of their captivity on land in Somalia,” the statement added.
Eyewitness who saw the crew as they were handed over to the Galmudug regional authorities in Galkayo said they all looked malnourished and two of them appeared so weak that they struggled to walk.
The negotiations that led to the release of the hostages continued for the last 18 months, but both the regional authorities and the Hostage Support Partners did not mention any ransom paid to secure the crew's freedom.
They are the second longest-held hostages by Somali pirates. Last year 4 Thai sailors of the FV Prantalay 12 were released after nearly five years in captivity.