MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somali pirates freed a Saudi supertanker seized in the world's biggest ship hijacking for a $3 million ransom on Friday, an associate of the gang said.
The capture of the Sirius Star and its $100 million cargo of crude in November drew attention to a surge in piracy off Somalia that has brought global navies rushing to protect one of the world's most important shipping lanes.
Farah Osman, speaking to Reuters from Haradheere port near where the tanker had been held, said the pirates had wanted more money but finally agreed $3 million for the ship. The Associated Press also quoted an unnamed negotiator for the pirates who also said the ship had been released.
A regional maritime group confirmed the release.
"The last batch of gunmen have disembarked from the Sirius Star. She is now steaming out to safe waters," said Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers Assistance program, based in the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
There was no immediate comment from Vela International, the Dubai-based shipping arm of Saudi Aramco, which operates the ship.
Seized in November
The Sirius Star was captured in November with 25 crew members, 450 nautical miles southeast of Kenya in the boldest seizure to date by Somali pirates.
The rampant piracy off Somalia worsened dramatically in 2008 as an Islamist insurgency fueled chaos onshore.
The piracy in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes has sent shipping insurance prices soaring, made some owners choose to go round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and brought an unprecedented deployment of international warships to the region.
The crew of the Sirius are from Britain, Poland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.
The U.S. Navy, which has had a warship close to the Sirius monitoring the saga, could not immediately confirm its release.
"The pirates are now arguing about division of the money," said Osman, their associate.
The U.S. Navy said on Thursday it was planning to launch a force to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, an offshoot of an earlier mission. Chinese warships also began anti-piracy patrols off Somalia this week.