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Somali Pirates Release Two Tanker Ships

An armed suspected pirate looks over the edge of a skiff, in international waters off the coast of Somalia (2006 file photo)

Somali pirates have released two chemical tanker ships they commandeered months ago in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia.

Reports indicate the two vessels were freed after more than $18 million was paid in ransoms to the kidnap gangs - some of the highest amounts given to pirates since the attacks became a serious problem several years ago.

China's Transport Ministry says the Singapore-flagged tanker MV Golden Blessing was released Saturday and is now sailing to safe waters escorted by Chinese naval forces.

The ship was seized in June while sailing to India from Saudi Arabia.

A Chinese statement gave no details of the ship's release, but media reports say the pirates were paid a ransom of $9 million.

The South Korean tanker ship Samho Dream also was released Saturday. Pirates seized the vessel in April.

A spokesman for the East African Seafarers Assistance Program said a ransom was also paid to secure that ship's release. An unconfirmed report - from Reuters - quotes one of the pirates as saying they collected $9.5 million in cash.

The Samho Dream was seized in the Indian Ocean while en route to the United States from Iraq carrying $170 million worth of oil.

Naval forces from the EU, NATO and several countries are patrolling waters near Somalia to combat piracy. Despite the patrols, Somali pirates have hijacked dozens of ships in recent years.

Somalia has been plagued by factional fighting and has lacked a strong central government for nearly 20 years.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.