updated 10/17/2008 3:18:11 PM ET 2008-10-17T19:18:11

A South Korean shipping company paid a ransom to Somali pirates for the release of a cargo ship and 22 crew members seized over a month ago, a company official said Friday.

The crew — eight South Koreans and 14 citizens of Myanmar — were released Thursday along with the ship Bright Ruby. The ship was hijacked off the coast of Somalia on Sept. 10.

An official with J&J Trust, which owns the ship, said an undisclosed ransom was delivered in cash through an unnamed middleman. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

The ship and crew — who are all safe — are now heading toward a Sri Lankan port and planned to return to their home countries, the South Korean foreign ministry and shipping company said.

The hijacking prompted South Korea's government to consider dispatching naval vessels to waters off Somalia to counter possible hijackings.

So far, 29 ships have been seized by pirates this year off the Horn of Africa, including an arms-laden Ukrainian ship for which pirates have demanded a $8 million ransom.

The hijacking of the Ukrainian freighter carrying tanks and other heavy weapons has heightened concern over the chaos in a key shipping route and prompted NATO to send warships to help U.S. Navy vessels already patrolling the region.

Last month, U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said the U.S.-led coalition patrolling the Gulf of Aden doesn't "have the resources to provide 24-hour protection for the vast number of merchant vessels in the region."

British Commodore Keith Winstanley said that shippers should considering hiring armed escorts.

Somalia, which has had no functioning government since 1991, is the world's top piracy hot spot. It is located along the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is one of the world's busiest waterways with some 20,000 ships passing through each year.

The latest ship to be hijacked is a Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier seized in the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday with a crew of 21, according to Noel Choong of the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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