By MOHAMED OLAD HASSAN Associated Press Writer
Five of the Somali pirates who released a hijacked oil-laden Saudi supertanker drowned with their share of a reported $3 million ransom after their small boat capsized, a pirate and port town resident said Saturday.
Pirate Daud Nure says the boat with eight people on board overturned in a storm after dozens of pirates left the Sirius Star following a two-month standoff in the Gulf of Aden that ended Friday.
He said five people died and three people reached shore after swimming for several hours. Daud Nure was not part of the pirate operation but knew those involved.
Jamal Abdulle, a resident of the Somali coastal town of Haradhere, close to where the ship had been anchored, also confirmed that the boat sank and that the eight's portion of the ransom money that had been shared among dozens of pirates was lost.
Saudi Arabian oil minister Ali Naimi said Saturday that the crew of the Sirius Star was safe and that the tanker had left Somali territorial waters and was on its way home.
A Saudi Oil Ministry official said the ship was headed for Dammam, on Saudi Arabia's Gulf coast, but gave no estimated time of arrival. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The Liberian-flagged ship is owned by Vela International Marine Ltd., a subsidiary of Saudi oil company Aramco. A spokesman for the Dubai-based Vela, Mihir Sapru, would not provide details of the ship's destination or plans once in port.
"We are very relieved to know that all the crew members are safe and I am glad to say that they are all in good health and high spirits," said a statement by Saleh K'aki, president and CEO of Vela. "This has been a very trying time for them and certainly for their families. We are very happy to report to their families that they will be on their way home soon."
K'aki added that the "throughout this ordeal, our sole objective was the safe and timely release of the crew. That has been achieved today."
U.S. Navy photos released Friday showed a parachute, carrying what was described as "an apparent payment," floating toward the tanker. The Sirius Star and its 25-member crew had been held since Nov. 15. Its cargo of crude oil was valued at US$100 million at the time.
The capture was seen as a dramatic demonstration of the pirates' ability to strike high value targets hundreds of miles offshore.
On the same day the Saudi ship was freed, pirates released a captured Iranian-chartered cargo ship, Iran's state television reported Saturday. It said the ship Delight was carrying 36 tons of wheat when it was attacked in the Gulf of Aden Nov. 18 and seized by pirates. All 25 crew are in good health and the vessel is sailing toward Iran, the TV report said.
The pirate-infested Gulf of Aden is one of the world's busiest shipping routes.
The U.S. Navy announced this week it will head a new anti-piracy task force after more than 100 ships were attacked last year. NATO and the European Union already have warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden and have intervened to prevent several ships from being captured.
More than a dozen ships with about 300 crew members are still being held by pirates off the coast of Somalia, including the weapons-laden Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina, which was seized in September.
The multimillion dollar ransoms are one of the few ways to earn a living in the impoverished, war-ravaged country. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and nearly half of its population depends on aid.
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