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21 April 2024

Somalia pirates free Georgian sailors


Fifteen Georgian sailors held hostage by pirates for more than a year off the coast of lawless Somalia have been freed, officials from the ex-Soviet state said on Sunday.

But there was no word on the fate of three Turkish sailors captured with them.

"The liberation of the Georgian sailors hijacked by Somali pirates has ended successfully," Georgia's Maritime Transport Agency said in a statement.

"The sailors are under armed guard on a ship controlled by the Georgian government," it said.

Armed raiders boarded the Malta-flagged cargo ship in the piracy-plagued area off the Gulf of Aden in September 2010 and seized the crew of 15 Georgians and three Turks.

The Georgian statement said that government efforts had achieved the seamen's release but did not specify whether the Turkish sailors had been freed or not.

The pirates had been demanding ê9 million (7.1 million euros) to release the ship but the Georgian statement did not say whether any ransom had been paid, or how the sailors had been freed.

The pirates released photographs to the Somalia Report website in October showing the emaciated Georgian sailors surrounded by masked men holding Kalashnikov rifles, but the statement said that the seamen's health was "satisfactory".

The ship, which had been on its final voyage to India to be scrapped, had no insurance and its Greek owner had gone into liquidation, leaving the sailors effectively stranded.

Georgia's foreign ministry said last year that officials were "doing everything possible to free its citizens", but declined to give details about the government's efforts "in order not to endanger their lives".

After Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, its once-powerful cargo fleet was sold off and hundreds of seamen were left jobless.

Many of them signed contracts that did little to protect their rights or safety, according to union officials.

Twelve other Georgians working on a fuel tanker were also hijacked by pirates off the coast of Nigeria in October 2011, although they were released after several days in captivity.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia, on a crucial maritime route leading to the Suez Canal, surged in 2007 and reached record levels in 2010 according to a report last year by the International Maritime Bureau.

The report said that pirates had taken more than 600 hostages worldwide, killing eight people and injured more than 40 others, although coordinated international anti-piracy efforts managed to thwart a significant number of attacks off Somalia, it said.

According to Ecoterra International, an environmental and human rights organisation that monitors regional maritime activity, pirates currently hold at least 43 ships and more than 400 seamen.

In a sign of wider concern about Somali piracy, the European Union is considering expanding its anti-pirate operation off the Horn of Africa, German officials said in December.