Somali pirates who seized oil tanker release it

A Somalia official says pirates who seized a Comoros-flagged oil tanker have released the ship without conditions.

Security official Ahmed Mohamed tells The Associated Press the pirates have disembarked the ship, which is now heading to Bossaso port, the region's commercial hub.

He says the release occurred after negotiations by local elders and local officials with the pirates, who seized the tanker on Monday.

Naval forces and the pirates clashed earlier Thursday.

The hijacking of the Comoros-flagged tanker Aris 13 was the first such seizure of a large commercial vessel off Somalia since 2012.

Somali pirates who seized an oil tanker opened fire Thursday on naval troops from the semiautonomous state of Puntland, sparking clashes between the two sides, a local official said.

Ali Shire Mohamud, the commissioner of Alula district where the ship is being held, said the clashes started after naval forces tried to stop a boat carrying reinforcement pirates to the ship. Mohamud declined to give further details.

Puntland dispatched naval forces to the area after the pirates seized the ship on Monday. The European Union anti-piracy operation in the region says the pirates are holding the eight Sri Lankan crew members captive and demanding a ransom.

The hijacking of the Comoros-flagged tanker Aris 13 was the first such seizure of a large commercial vessel off Somalia since 2012. International anti-piracy patrols on the crucial trade route had calmed such attacks, which once numbered in the hundreds.

A security official said one soldier was seriously injured in Thursday's clashes. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said pirates on the ship were continuing to receive reinforcements while regional forces mobilizing nearby.

A Somali pirate who said he was in touch with the armed men, Bile Hussein, said the pirates moved the ship away from the coast after naval forces approached.

"The ship and crew will remain safe as long as no one attacks them," Hussein said by phone from an undisclosed location in northern Somalia.

The director of Puntland's anti-piracy agency, Abdirizak Mohamed Ahmed, said they were not aware of any threats issued by the pirates against the crew. But he said it is normal for pirates to send threats once they feel pressured.

He said the Puntland naval forces were dispatched to the area not to free the ship by force but to cut off any supplies to the pirates.

"Attacking the ship will not help, but instead it will endanger the lives of the crew," he said.

Families of the crew members have tearfully pleaded for the men to be released unharmed. Somali pirates usually hijack ships and crew for ransom. They don't normally kill hostages unless they come under attack.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Thursday said his officials were in conversation with Puntland authorities to ensure the crew's safety.

"We are keeping a close watch and the hostages are safe," Samaraweera said.

Tyronne Fernando with the ship's local agent, A.J. Shipping, said Aurora Ship Management company in Dubai was handling the negotiations. Aurora has not commented.

The ship had been carrying fuel from Djibouti to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on Monday when it was approached by men in two skiffs and the tanker issued a call for help.

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