Somali pirates release longest-held hostages after 33 months

BOSASSO, Somalia, Dec 23 (Reuters) - A ship and its crew of

22 sailors held by Somali pirates for almost three years have

been freed after a two-week-long siege by maritime police, the

government of the breakaway region of Puntland said on Sunday.

The sailors aboard Panama-flagged MV Iceberg 1, from the

Philippines, India, Yemen, Sudan, Ghana and Pakistan, were held

for longer than any other hostages in the power of the pirates,

who prey on shipping in the region, according to the president's

office of the northern Somali enclave in a statement

Maritime police laid siege to the vessel on Dec. 10 near the

coastal village of Gara'ad in the region of Mudug.

"After 2 years and 9 months in captivity, the hostages have

suffered signs of physical torture and illness. The hostages are

now receiving nutrition and medical care," said the statement.

The ship originally had a crew of 24, but two had died since

the roll-on roll-off cargo vessel was seized on March 29, 2010,

some 10 miles from Aden, pirates said.

One of the pirate leaders said they only released the ship

after negotiation with Puntland officials and local elders.

"They kindly requested the release of the ship we held for

three years. Puntland forces had attacked us and tried to

release the ship by force but they failed. We fought back and

defeated them," the pirate known as Farah told Reuters.

Farah did not disclose whether any ransom had been paid for

the crew and the ship, owned by Azal Shipping in Dubai with a

deadweight of 4,500 tonnes.

Pirates rarely release ships without ransom, and usually

raise their demands the longer they hold a vessel, because they

charge for their expenses.

International navies have had some recent success containing

piracy in the Indian Ocean.

Although more than 100 hostages taken off Somalia are still

being held captive, the number of hijackings of ships dropped to

seven in the first 11 months of this year compared to 24 in the

whole of 2011.

Separately, Puntland said a group of eight Puntland soldiers

responsible for briefly trying to sail away with a North

Korea-flagged vessel, MV Daesan and its 33-member crew were

jailed by a Puntland military court on December 22.

MV Daesan, a North Korean ship ferrying cement to Somali

capital Mogadishu, was impounded by the Puntland auhtorities and

fined last month by Puntland authorities who accused it of

ditching its cargo off Somalia's coast.

The soldiers had taken the vessel on Dec. 18.

"Puntland Government managed to return the vessel back to

the port within 24 hours; the soldiers were arrested and will be

brought to justice," the authorities said.

(Writing by James Macharia; editing by Jason Webb)

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