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Somali pirates leave Japan-owned ship, crew safe
NAIROBI, Dec 12, 2007 - Somali pirates who seized a Japanese chemical tanker in October and were demanding a $1 million ransom have left the vessel without hurting any of its crew, a U.S. military spokesman said on Wednesday.
The Panama-registered Golden Nori was carrying benzene from Singapore to Israel when it was hijacked on October 28, just off Somalia in one of the world's most dangerous shipping lanes.
U.S. Navy ships cornered the vessel earlier this month, opening fire and destroying speedboats used by the pirates that the hijacked tanker had in tow.
"All the pirates are off the vessel. The U.S. Navy has a ship nearby. We're standing by to offer assistance," said Lieutenant John Gay of the U.S. Navy Central Command in Bahrain.
"All the crew is safe." He gave no further details on how the pirates had left the ship. The Golden Nori's 21 sailors are believed to be from Myanmar, the Philippines and South Korea.
Somali officials have said there are 21 crew members on board. The U.S. Navy, which has had a long presence in the region, has concentrated its anti-piracy efforts along Somalia's coast after several ships were hijacked there this year.
Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said his group's sources said the ship was on the move.
"It seems to be free, but we don't know what condition it or its crew are in, or whether any ransom was paid," Mwangura told Reuters. "We are trying to establish more information."
Gay said the Golden Nori was on its way to another port.
"We will escort them if necessary," he said. "Our aim was to get the pirates off the ship and ensure the crew was safe."
He also said it was the first time since late 2006 that the Somali coast was free of ships seized by pirates.
The attackers had been expected to demand a ransom of at least $1 million for the safe release of the tanker. Ransom demands are normally determined by the size of the ship, its cargo and the nationalities of its crew, experts say.
In August, Danish media said Somali pirates freed a Danish cargo ship, the MV Danica White, and its five Danish sailors after a security company paid a $1.5 million ransom.
(Writing by Michael Winfrey and Daniel Wallis; editing by Elizabeth Piper)