updated 12/11/2007 11:09:25 PM ET 2007-12-12T04:09:25

Pirates freed a Japanese chemical tanker loaded with highly explosive benzene off the coast of Somalia Wednesday, six weeks after seizing the vessel and its crew, a U.S. Navy spokesman said.

All 22 crew members were unhurt, the Navy said, and the pirates were seen heading toward the Somali coast.

The Golden Nori was seized off the east coast of Somalia in late October carrying up to 40,000 tons of benzene. The U.S. Navy came to the aid of the vessel that month, with the guided missile destroyer USS Porter opening fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to the ship, and the Navy monitoring the ship afterward.

“All the pirates are off the ship, and the first indication is that all crew members are unharmed,” Lt. John Gay, a U.S. Navy spokesman told The Associated Press.

The 6,253-ton tanker was carrying crew from Myanmar, the Philippines and South Korea. One of the two South Korean crew members escaped and was rescued by a passing vessel in early November.

Gay said a U.S. Navy vessel was still monitoring the ship, while standing by for a possible request for assistance.

The Golden Nori is expected to “go to a safe port,” Gay said. “If necessary, we will provide an escort.”

No details on negotiations
On Tuesday, the ship’s Japanese owner, Dorval Kaiun K.K., had said negotiations were under way to free the remaining crew, The company did not disclose details.

Japanese government and shipping company officials said the release could not be immediately confirmed.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers’ Assistance Program, said Monday that the hostage takers had demanded $1 million ransom and threatened to kill all 22 crew members if their demands were not met.

Somali pirates, sometimes linked to powerful local clans, are trained fighters outfitted with sophisticated arms and equipment. They have seized merchant ships, vessels carrying aid, and once even a cruise ship.

The U.S. military has recently intervened several times to help ships hijacked by Somali pirates, who have been allowed to operate with relative impunity since 1991, when a dictatorship in Somalia collapsed and many parts of the country fell into anarchy.

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