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18 Mar, 2008 18:00

Pirates free Russian sailors after seven weeks

Somali pirates have released a ship captured off the Horn of Africa on its way to Russia after a $US 700,000 ransom was paid, a local official has said. Four Russian sailors were among the hostages and are said to be in good health.

The Switzer Korsakov, detained for almost two months, is believed to be on its way home.  It’s thought the tugboat was undamaged. The six-man crew was made up of four Russian sailors, an Irish engineer and a British captain.

Switzer Spokesperson Patrick Adamson said he was delighted at the news.

“We've been talking to the hijackers through the captain very regularly for the 47 seven days that they've been out there. We are not sure which port they are going to. They are safe and well and we are absolutely delighted,” Adamson said.

On February 1, the Russian built ice-class tug vessel was seized near Somalia's coastline. Pirates on small motorboats captured the Danish-owned vessel and towed it to the port of Mogadishu.

The Switzer Korsakov tug ship had left St Petersburg in December and was heading for Russia's Pacific coast. There the boat was about to join the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas development project. But halfway through its journey the boat was intercepted in the Gulf of Aden.

One theory is that the operation was organised from the United Arab Emirates. Editor-in-chief of the maritime bulletin ‘Sovfracht' said there’s a good chance the boat was attacked because of its size and shape. 

Modern day piracy is a growing problem. In 2007 alone, pirate attacks rose by 10% with 263 cases registered worldwide. Sailors try to avoid the coasts of Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria, areas regarded as the most dangerous.

Weapons are prohibited on board ships, which means that pirates can hijack them without fear of armed resistance. There is always a risk that if a crew tries to use force in response it will end in tragedy.