updated 8/3/2009 2:22:16 PM ET 2009-08-03T18:22:16

Somali pirates released a German freighter after a ransom was paid Monday, nearly four months after the ship was seized in the Indian Ocean, a European Union naval spokesman said.

British Royal Navy Cmdr. John Harbour said the 20,000-ton Hansa Stavanger, taken 400 miles off the southern Somali port of Kismayu on April 4, was released several hours after the payment was made.

"She put to sea on her own steam and she is continuing out to sea under the protection of European naval force units," he said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement it was "with great relief" that learned of the ship's release.

Merkel 'happy and relieved'
Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, was "happy and relieved," a German government spokeswoman said.

"She hopes that the released crew members and their families can recover as quickly as possible from the stress and emotional strain of the past weeks," the spokeswoman said on customary condition of anonymity.

Harbour said the EU did not get involved in ransom deals and he could not confirm reports that $2.7 million had been paid. He was reached at the headquarters of the EU's anti-piracy mission in Northwood, near London.

Frank Leonhardt, head of the Hamburg-based shipping company Leonhardt & Blumberg, said in a statement that he had spoken with the crew by telephone and they were "doing well."

He said the ship would continue to Mombasa, where it would be met by representatives from the company, and that the crew members would be flown to their homes "as quickly as possible."

He said the ordeal had been "seemingly endless" for the crew members and company.

Difficult negotiations
"In the extremely difficult ransom negotiations with the pirates, my primary responsibility was always the safe release of the 24 crew members of the MV Hansa Stavanger."

He did not give any other details on the ransom and nobody could be reached at the company by telephone to provide further details.

The ship had a multinational 24 member crew: five Germans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 Tuvalus.

By Monday evening, a small EU team had boarded the vessel with a doctor to check over the crew members, but Harbour said initial indications were that everyone was in good condition.

"Everyone is accounted for, and there appears to be no major problem medically," he said.

Pirates in the area have conducted more than 100 attacks this year and are currently holding about a dozen vessels.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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