NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan. 9, 2009 -- The Sirius Star, a Saudi-Arabian supertanker hijacked by pirates nearly two months ago off the coast of Somalia, has reportedly been released.
"The last group of pirates has disembarked from the Sirius Star," said Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarer's Assistance Program, a maritime group out of Kenya that tracks piracy. "She is heading into safe waters."
The ship was carrying 2 million barrels of oil, more than one-quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily output and worth an estimated $100 million. The ship's 25 crew members are all believed to be safe.
Mwangura told ABC News that a final deal was reached Thursday with the actual release beginning this morning. Mwangura said a ransom was paid, but could not confirm the amount. Reuters news agency reports that the pirates claim receiving $3 million, but a spokeswoman for the Saudi firm, Vela International, said the company cannot confirm or deny the reports.
The Combined Maritime Force released pictures of what appears to be ransom payments being dropped off on the ship before the pirates disembarked. "This is indeed good news that it appears that the ship and crew of Sirius Star are to be released," said Commodore Tim Lowe, Deputy CMF commander, in a statement.
"The men who attacked the ship and held the crew hostage are armed criminals, and we can not forget that as we continue to address the problem of piracy. Nearly 300 other merchant mariners are still being held captive," he said.
More than 100 ships were attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia last year, and at least 12 are still being held hostage. The Sirius Star, hijacked in November, was considered an alarming escalation to the piracy problem. Its size – 1,080 feet long, weighing 318,000 tons – and the fact that it was captured 450 miles off shore showed that the pirates were becoming increasingly brazen in their attacks. "It absolutely marks a fundamental shift in the pirates' ability to conduct operations," Lt. Nathan Christensen, the spokesman for the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, told ABC News.
New Maritime Task Force Patrols Somalia Coast
International maritime officials have called the piracy problem in Somalia "out of control" and shipping companies have threatened to bypass Africa completely, causing weeks of delay in the delivering of goods and millions of extra dollars.
But the international community is taking steps to be more aggressive in the fight against piracy. Last month the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing strikes on pirates at sea and on land. Yesterday the CMF announced a new task force to begin in mid-January specifically to fight piracy.
The Combined Task Force 151 consists of three U.S. ships, 1,000 sailors and two helicopters. There are 20 nations within the CMF who will also have an opportunity to contribute to the new task force.
Lara Setrakian and Luis Martinez contributed to this article.