NAIROBI -- Somali pirates have freed 26 Asian hostages held for nearly five years after the hijacking of their fishing vessel, the last commercial ship seized at the height of the country’s piracy scourge, negotiators said Saturday.
The crew of the Naham 3, the second longest held hostage by Somali pirates, were taken captive when their Omani-flagged vessel was seized in March 2012 south of the Seychelles.
“We are very pleased to announce the release of the Naham 3 crew early this morning,” said John Steed, coordinator of the Hostage Support Partners (HSP) who helped negotiate their release.
Steed, a retired British army colonel who has made it his mission to save “forgotten hostages,” told AFP the mission to return the crew to their families still held one obstacle: extracting them from the city of Galkayo, where fighting was raging between forces from the rival regional states of Puntland and Galmudug.
“There is fighting in Galkayo so it is very dangerous at the moment, they are exchanging artillery tonight. We will go in early tomorrow morning if the fighting stops and bring them back to Nairobi for medicals and a clean-up.”
Clashes in Galkayo have left at least 11 dead and over 50,000 displaced this month, the UN humanitarian agency said last week.
Once extracted, the crew, from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, will be returned to their home countries and families.
“They have spent over four and a half years in deplorable conditions away from their families,” said Steed.
He said the crew was malnourished and one of the hostages had a bullet wound in his foot, another had had a stroke and another was suffering from diabetes.
Pirates initially took 29 crew hostage, but one person died during the hijacking, and two more “succumbed to illness” during their captivity, said a statement from Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP).
Steed said negotiations — which took 18 months — involved mediation with community, tribal and religious leaders.
He declined to comment on the exact details but said the road to the hostages being freed was filled with peril and “heroism”.