Sunday, June 28, 2009

Somalia Pirates Release Belgian Ship's Crew

Somali pirates release Belgian ship's crew

By AOIFE WHITE, Associated Press Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

(06-28) 04:58 PDT BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) --Somali pirates have released the entire crew of a Belgian ship seized 10 weeks ago after a ransom was paid, the Belgian government said Sunday.

The 10-member crew of the Pompei dredger was in good health and sailing the ship to an unidentified harbor where it will arrive in a few days, the government said. The crew members will then fly home to their families.

Defense Minister Pieter De Crem told a news conference that the ship's owners paid a ransom to release the ship and crew. He declined to say how much, but said pirates had demanded $8 million.

A plane dropped the money into the sea near the Belgian vessel Saturday, De Crem said. About 10 pirates on board abandoned the ship early Sunday.

The ship, its Dutch captain and crew of two Belgians, three Filipinos and four Croatians were seized April 18 a few hundred miles north of the Seychelles islands as they were sailing from Dubai to South Africa.

The pirates took the ship to the Somali coast where they and the crew stayed on board.

Belgian officials said the ship's owners negotiated the release with a middleman who sometimes passed on messages from the captain.

The pirates even contacted the crew's family members once to prove that they were still alive.

De Crem said the government had considered military intervention to seize the ship, but decided that it was "not desirable" because it could endanger the crew.

Despite international navy patrols, piracy has exploded in the Gulf of Aden and around Somalia's 1,900-mile (3,060-kilometer) coastline. Pirates are able to operate freely because Somalia has had no effective central government in nearly 20 years.

Seasonal monsoons have hampered pirate activity recently and the relative lull is expected to continue until at least the end of August, when the rough weather subsides, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau.

Belgian prosecutors said an attack on a Belgian ship in international waters was a crime that they would investigate. Belgian police will interview the crew and check the ship for forensic and DNA evidence when it reaches harbor, they said.

"We think there is a chance" that some of the pirates might be caught and brought to justice, federal prosecutor Johan Delmulle told reporters. They could face up to 30 years in jail.

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