The most lawless palce in the world is the waters off Somalia's 2,900-kilometer (1,800-mile) coast, where pirates are cruising the sea with impunity as their country festers in chaos.
On Wednesday, pirates freed a Japanese tanker and its 22 crew members after six weeks of captivity, ending the latest in a string of attacks off Africa's longest coastline. The U.S. Navy, which has led international patrols to try to combat piracy in the region, said the release meant no ships were being held by Somali pirates for the first time in more than a year.
But there was no definitive word on where the pirates who seized the Golden Nori had gone, or whether a US$1 million ransom exchanged hands.
"All the pirates are off the ship, and the first indication is that all crew members are unharmed," Lt. John Gay, a U.S. Navy spokesman told The Associated Press. He added that the pirates headed toward the Somali coast off the eastern rim of the Horn of Africa. A landing vessel, the USS Whidbey Island, was monitoring them from "a visible distance."
Somali pirates, who have hijacked more than two dozen ships this year, are trained fighters, in some cases linked to powerful Somali clans. They are outfitted with sophisticated arms and GPS satellites that lead them to merchant ships, ships carrying aid, and once even a cruise ship.
The motivation often is money to supply the country's complex clan system, which has been the basis of politics and identity here for centuries. The weak government is using what resources it has to fight a bloody Islamic insurgency, meaning pirate ships can cruise the ragged coastline freely.
Earlier this week, a maritime official in neighboring Kenya said the pirates had threatened to kill the crew unless a US$1 million ransom was paid.
Abdi Yusuf, a Somali pirate who said he had been on board the Golden Nori, told The Associated Press from hiding that a ransom was paid - but he would not say how much.
"We released the ship because we have been compensated," Yusuf said by telephone when contacted by The Associated Press. The claim could not be independently verified.
The 6,253-ton tanker, carrying crew from Myanmar, the Philippines and South Korea, was seized in late October. One of the two South Korean crew members escaped and was rescued by a passing vessel in early November.
"We feel so relieved," said Yoichi Oda, the Japanese Transport Ministry official in charge of crisis management.
Oda said the Golden Nori, escorted by U.S. navy vessels, was moving away from Somalia to a safe port in a nearby country. Its destination could not be disclosed, he said, citing the owner's safety concerns.
Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said that U.S. sailors boarded the tanker to secure the crew and are currently escorting them to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where they are expected to arrive Dec. 18. The nine Filipino seamen will be replaced with a fresh crew there.
The Golden Nori crew members "are safe and in good condition" and were undergoing health examinations, Conejos said in a statement.
The ship's Japanese owner, Dorval Kaiun K.K., said in a separate statement that the release was a result of "our persistent negotiation effort, with the help of U.S. and British navies."
Oda said he could not comment on the details of negotiations or what prompted the captors to agree to the release.
In Manila, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo was "elated" over the release, according to his spokesman Claro Cristobal.
Redentor Anaya, vice president of SeaCrest Maritime Management Inc., a Philippine company that provided a captain and eight other crew for the tanker, said he was informed that the crew were "all safe."
"I was, of course, very happy about the release of my husband," said Tess Villanueva, wife of Filipino crew supervisor Laureano Villanueva. "I prayed hard that we will all be together this Christmas."
She said her family was informed about the ship's release, but she has not yet spoken with her husband.
The chemical tanker had been anchored off the Somali coast and carrying up to 10,000 tons of highly explosive benzene.
The U.S. Navy in late October came to the aid of the vessel, with the guided missile destroyer USS Porter at one point opening fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to it. The U.S. military has recently intervened several times to help ships hijacked by Somali pirates.