A ship and its crew of 22 sailors held by Somali pirates for almost three years have been freed after a two-week-long siege by maritime police, the government of the breakaway region of Puntland said.
"After two years and nine months in captivity, the hostages have suffered signs of physical torture and illness. The hostages are now receiving nutrition and medical care," the president's office of the northern Somali enclave said on Sunday in a statement.
The sailors aboard Panama-flagged MV Iceberg 1, from the Philippines, India, Yemen, Sudan, Ghana and Pakistan, were held for longer than any other hostages by the pirates who prey on shipping in the region.
Maritime police began to lay siege to the vessel on December 10 near the coastal village of Garaad in the region of Mudug.
The ship originally had a crew of 24, but two have died since the roll-on roll-off cargo vessel was seized on March 29, 2010, some 16km from Aden, the pirates said.
Release 'kindly requested'
One of the pirate leaders said they only released the ship after negotiations with Puntland officials and local elders.
"They kindly requested the release of the ship we held for three years. Puntland forces had attacked us and tried to release the ship by force but they failed. We fought back and defeated them," a pirate known as Farah told the Reuters news agency.
Farah did not disclose whether any ransom had been paid for the crew and the ship, owned by Azal Shipping in Dubai.
Pirates rarely release ships without ransom, and usually raise their demands the longer they hold a vessel - because they charge for their expenses.
Close to 120 seafarers are still held by Somali pirates, though that number is considerably down from the height of the piracy crisis two years ago, when more than 600 hostages were held at any given time.
Hijackings by Somali pirates have been significantly reduced in the last couple of years because many ships now carry armed guards and there is an international naval armada that carries out onshore raids.
In 2012, pirates seized 47 vessels. So far this year, they have taken five, a decrease that could signify the scourge is ending, though experts say it is too early to declare a victory.