Somali pirates on Thursday released a hijacked oil tanker and its eight-man Sri Lankan crew without any conditions or ransom payments. The release followed a gunfight earlier in the day between the pirates and a marine force, and then intensive negotiations between the marine force, clan elders and the pirates.
Two people in the Somali town of Haabo were wounded as naval forces traded fire with men trying to ferry supplies to the tanker. Witnesses told VOA's Somali service that the navy of Somalia's Puntland region intercepted a boat it thought was taking food to the gunmen holding the Aris 13 and its crew.
John Steed, regional manager of the watchdog group Oceans Without Piracy, told VOA, "They [the pirates] were given an offer they could not refuse — live or die. They were surrounded [with] nowhere to go, so pragmatism won in the end."
Immunity grant reported
Officials said local elders negotiated the release of the Aris 13 and that as part of the negotiations, the pirates were allowed to leave the vessel and return to shore. The Puntland government also reportedly granted them immunity.
The Sri Lanka-flagged ship is owned by Armi Shipping SA and is operated by Aurora Ship Management, both based in the United Arab Emirates.
Gunmen in two skiffs hijacked the Aris 13 Monday off the coast of Somalia as it traveled from Djibouti to Mogadishu carrying fuel and gas.
The hijackers, who insisted they were fishermen, not pirates, said they wanted "compensation" for illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia, but did not make specific ransom demands.
Maritime and Somali regional officials said the hijackers moved the ship to Haabo from its original location off the coast of Alula to the west.
"We don't have facts, but we heard perhaps they moved away from Alula because they received hostile reception from their locals and they felt under pressure to move," Abdirazak Mohamed Dirir, Puntland counterpiracy director, told VOA.
Steed said there was nothing unusual about the move. "Haabo is a bit more difficult to get out, and so they may have felt it's a safer anchorage for them, maybe they'll have a better support where they can get additional guards," he said.
First piracy in five years
The hijacking was the first time Somali pirates had taken over a commercial ship since 2012 and followed an outpouring of anger by locals over foreign fishermen flooding into their waters.
In their heyday in 2010, bands of Somali pirates hijacked nearly 50 ships and captured more than 1,000 sailors, causing an estimated $7 billion loss to the shipping industry.
Since then, piracy has virtually vanished, as ships adopted better security measures and international navies stepped up their patrols of Somali waters.
Steed said ships near Somalia should follow recommended safety practices, which include avoiding high-risk areas, sailing at high speed and in some cases carrying armed guards.
Faduma Yassin Jama and Smita Nordwall contributed to this repor