Image: MV York
The MV York merchant vessel which was boarded by suspected Somali pirates approximately 90 nautical miles from Mombasa, Kenya, on Saturday Oct. 23, 2010. A distress signal from the vessel was received Saturday as the York sailed between Mombasa and Mahe, Seychelles, with 17 crew aboard.
updated 10/25/2010 2:49:30 PM ET 2010-10-25T18:49:30

Rescue forces using a ship, a plane and a helicopter freed a German cargo vessel being held by Somali pirates off eastern Africa on Monday, but the hijackers got away, officials said.

None of the 16 crew members aboard the Beluga Fortune, which was seized by Somali pirates about 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) east of Mombasa, Kenya, on Sunday morning, was harmed in the ordeal, Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for the shipping company Beluga-Reederei, told The Associated Press.

The German military and the international anti-pirate mission Operation Atalanta helped free the Beluga Fortune, the shipping company said, adding that the commercial vessel was now on its way to South Africa as planned.

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German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was relieved by the rescue. He especially thanked the British military for its efforts and called the case a "good example for international cooperation in the fight against piracy."

Germany's foreign and defense ministries declined to give further details about how the rescue occurred.

But Nils Stolberg, the director of the Beluga-Reederei, said in an email to the AP that a British frigate, a surveillance plane and a helicopter were involved in freeing the German cargo ship. Stolberg said the rescue was peaceful because by the time the military entered the Beluga Fortune the pirates had already fled.

Stolberg also said one of the main reasons the military forces succeeded was that the Beluga Fortune's crew had trained for an emergency situation like this many times over the years.

"They sent out an emergency call, barricaded themselves in a special security room, shut off the fuel supply and the bridge and informed the military," Stolberg said. "This way the pirates could not bring the ship under their control or take the sailors at ransom."

While the Bremen-based company worked together with the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin to inform the German, Russian and Filipino family members of the crew, the German military and the anti-pirate mission evaluated the situation on the ground by deploying ships and a surveillance plane.

Somali pirates have long been active in the region, and they currently are holding 19 vessels with 428 hostages, according to the EU Naval Force.

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On Saturday night, pirates seized a liquefied gas tanker 105 miles (165 kilometers) off the coast of Kenya in the Somali Basin, said officials in Singapore, where the ship is registered.

The MV York was traveling from Mombasa to Mahe in the Seychelles with 17 crew when pirates commandeered it, the Singapore Maritime and Port Authority said in a statement.

The authority said Sunday it was working with the ship's owner, York Maritime Co., and government agencies to recover the ship.

The 5,076-ton MV York had one German, two Ukrainians and 14 Filipinos aboard, the EU force said in a statement.

Somalia has lacked a fully functioning government since 1991, which makes it difficult to prosecute suspected Somali pirates. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said options under consideration to do that more effectively include creating a special international court.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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