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Pirates release Japanese tanker off Somalia, crew appear unharmed
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    MOGADISHU, Somalia — Pirates freed a Japanese tanker and its 22 crew members apparently unharmed off the Somali coast Wednesday, a U.S. Navy spokesman said. A man who claimed he was one of the pirates said a ransom was paid for the release.
    The chemical tanker Golden Nori, seized six weeks ago while carrying highly explosive benzene, was freed days after reports that the pirates had demanded $1 million in ransom and threatened to kill the crew. But neither the ship owner nor a Japanese official would say if a ransom was paid.
    ‘‘All the pirates are off the ship, and the first indication is that all crew members are unharmed,’’ Lt. John Gay, a U.S. Navy spokesman, told The Associated Press, adding that the pirates had headed toward the Somali coast. A landing vessel, the USS Whidbey Island, was monitoring them from ‘‘a visible distance.’’
    Somali pirates, sometimes linked to powerful local clans, are trained fighters, outfitted with sophisticated arms and equipment. They have seized merchant ships, vessels carrying aid, and once even a cruise ship.
    Abdi Yusuf, who said he was one of the Somali pirates on board the Golden Nori, said a ransom was paid — but he would not say how much.
    ‘‘We released the ship because we have been compensated,’’ Yusuf told the AP by telephone, saying he was in hiding. ‘‘We all escaped.’’
    The 6,253-ton tanker, carrying crew from Myanmar, the Philippines and South Korea, was seized in late October. One of the two South Korean crew members escaped and was rescued by a passing vessel in early November.
    The U.S. Navy came to the aid of the vessel in late October, with the guided missile destroyer USS Porter, at one point opening fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to it.
    Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said Wednesday that U.S. sailors boarded the tanker to secure the crew and were currently escorting them to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where they are expected to arrive Dec. 18. The nine Filipino seamen will be replaced with a fresh crew there.
    The Golden Nori crew members ‘‘are safe and in good condition’’ and were undergoing health examinations, Conejos said in a statement.
    ‘‘We feel so relieved,’’ said Yoichi Oda, the Japanese Transport Ministry official in charge of crisis management.
    The ship’s Japanese owner, Dorval Kaiun K.K., said in a separate statement that the release was a result of ‘‘our persistent negotiation effort, with the help of U.S. and British navies.’’
    On Monday, Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers’ Assistance Program, said that the hostage takers had demanded $1 million ransom and threatened to kill all 22 crew if their demands were not met.
    Oda said he could not comment on the details of negotiations or what prompted the captors to agree to the release.
    In Manila, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo was ‘‘elated’’ over the release, according to his spokesman Claro Cristobal.
    Redentor Anaya, vice president of SeaCrest Maritime Management Inc., a Philippine company that provided a captain and eight other crew for the tanker, said he was informed that the crew were ‘‘all safe.’’
    Tess Villanueva, wife of Filipino crew supervisor Laureano Villanueva, said she had been told her husband had been released but had not yet spoken to him.
    ‘‘I was, of course, very happy about the release of my husband,’’ said Villanueva. ‘‘I prayed hard that we will all be together this Christmas.’’
    The chemical tanker had been anchored off the Somali coast and carrying up to 10,000 tons of highly explosive benzene.
    The U.S. military has recently intervened several times to help ships hijacked by Somali pirates.
    Associated Press writers Mohamed Sheikh Nor reported this story from Mogadishu, Somalia, and Mari Yamaguchi from Tokyo. Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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