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Somali pirates release ship and crew

Somali pirates have released a Belgian ship and its European and Filipino crew, hijacked 10 weeks ago, after a ransom was paid, Belgian authorities said.

BRUSSELS // Somali pirates have released a Belgian ship and its European and Filipino crew, hijacked 10 weeks ago, after a ransom was paid, Belgian authorities said yesterday, adding that the crew were in good health. "We can confirm that they [the crew] are all in good health, considering the circumstances," Jaak Raes, the director general of the Belgian government's crisis centre, told a press conference.

The amount of ransom paid was not disclosed. The ship, the Pompei, was hijacked at dawn on April 18 about 150 kilometres north of the Seychelles and taken to the Somali coast. The ship, which specialises in the transportation and laying of rocks, was on its way to South Africa from Dubai, where it had taken part in the construction of artificial islands. Its Dutch captain and crew of two Belgians, three Filipinos and four Croatians have since been released.

A tape of the captain, Hendrik Toxopeus, confirming that the hijackers had left was played to the press conference. "An initial ransom demand was made for US$8 million [Dh29.3m]. After 68 days of negotiations, an agreement was reached on Wednesday, thanks to the mediation of a Somali intermediary, who went on board the ship several times," said Guido De Padt, the interior minister. The ransom was paid by the Belgian owners of the Pompei, Jan De Nui Deme and Herbosch-Kiere. The amount was not revealed.

It was dropped by parachute on Saturday afternoon by a plane near the ship, which was at anchor off Hobyo, 34km north-east of the Somali coastal town of Harardhere, Belgian officials said. Because of the weather conditions, the hijackers were not able to leave the ship until Saturday night. In the coming days, the Pompei will put into a safe port in the region, escorted by a Greek ship in the European Union's antipiracy Operation, Atalanta, Pieter De Crem, the defence minister, said.

He added that military intervention to free the ship had "been judged inopportune". The news of Pompei's release was broken yesterday by the Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy. "The government was informed of the release of the Pompei and its crew," he said in a statement. "We were also informed that the entire crew is in good health." "Our thoughts are with the Belgian, Dutch, Croatian and Filipino families of the crew who had to endure difficult moments since Saturday April 18," he added.

Belgian officials said they had opened an inquiry and would send a team of investigators to look for fingerprints or DNA traces left by the pirates on the vessel. The Belgian state prosecutor Johan Delmulle said there is "a chance" of finding them. * Agence France-Presse

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