PARIS — The Greek-owned supertanker Maran Centaurus was released by pirates off the Somali coast, leading to gun battles among the outlaws over what one called a $5 million ransom payment.
Maran Tankers Management Inc., which operates the vessel, said in a statement in London Monday that the 28-person crew is "safe and well." The company said it wouldn't release details on talks that led to the release of the tanker, which was seized Nov. 29 near the Seychelles while en route to the United States with 2 million barrels of oil.
The ransom was dropped by helicopter onto the tanker Suday, Bashir Shiine Muse, a member of the pirate crew that took the ship, said in a telephone interview Monday. Gun battles flared among the pirates after they returned to land, he said.
"There is mistrust within the group because there are rumors that some extra money has been transferred into another bank account that some of us weren't aware of," he said.
Incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea rose last year to the highest level in six years and violence intensified, with Somalia accounting for more than half of the attacks, the International Maritime Bureau said last week. There were 406 attacks, up from 293 in 2008, the London-based bureau said. It was the highest number of incidents since 2003, when there were 445 incidents. Somalia accounted for 217 attacks.
Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, commander of the European Union anti-piracy fleet, said that shipping companies have paid $80 million to $100 million in ransom money to Somali pirates in the past two years.
A December 2008 report by the United Nations monitoring group on Somalia, which oversees an arms embargo on militias in the country, said 30 percent of each ransom goes to the maritime crew that seize the ship, 10 percent goes to guards who watch the ship while it's anchored offshore, 10 percent is distributed to the local community, and the remaining 50 percent goes to Somali "investors" who sponsor and finance the attacks.
The Greek frigate Salamis brought fresh water and medical treatment to the crew after the tanker's captain contacted naval forces to say the last pirates had left the ship, John Harbour, a London-based spokesman for the EU anti-piracy mission, said in a telephone interview.
The men on board came from Greece, Philippines, Ukraine and Romania. It had been held off the Somali port of Haradere and is now heading to Durban, South Africa, the EU said.
Harbour said EU naval forces hadn't witnessed a ransom drop. In most cases, such payments are dropped by light aircraft onto the decks of ships after the crew is paraded on the bridge to show they are safe, Bruce Paulsen, a New York attorney who helped negotiate the release of a palm oil carrier captured in November 2008 off the coast of Somalia.
Ecoterra, an environmental group that monitors activity in the region, said some reports of the ransom go as high as $7 million. Ecoterra said two pirates were killed in a gun battle as they returned to shore.
About 25 warships from the EU, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a U.S.-led coalition are in the area to combat piracy.
Omar reported from Mogadishu. With assistance from Peter S. Green in New York.