HARGEISA Somali pirates have released a Panama-flagged vessel they seized two months ago allowing it to continue on its way to the breakaway enclave of Somaliland, the ship's agent and a government official said on Thursday.
Pirates hijacked the MV Leila in February near Oman, seizing the ship with its cargo of goods and cars, and then sailing it to the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in Somalia.
The vessel was en route to Somaliland at the time and the pirates said they would impound it until fellow pirates being held in the enclave's jails were released.
On Thursday, Mohamed Osman, the head of Somaliland's anti-piracy task force, told Reuters the ship had been released.
"I have spoken to Omar Apocar, Deputy Manager of the Port of Berbera, who has confirmed to me that the ship has been released in Bosasso and will most probably anchor in Berbera tonight," he said, referring to Somaliland's port city.
Ahmed Farah Mohamed, the ship's Somali agent in Berbera, told Reuters the release took place when a ransom was paid after talks among local elders, businessmen and shipping agents.
"It took almost a month of negotiations by a committee of seven people ... and a down payment of $250,000 ransom, for the pirates to release the ship. The ship is expected to arrive at Berbera port in the next few days," he said.
The payment of a ransom could not immediately be verified - Osman said the authorities in Somaliland had a policy of not paying ransoms.
"I have no official information on money changing hands. The official view of Somaliland is that no ransom should be paid," he said.
Somali pirate gangs typically seize ships in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, holding their cargo and crews until they receive a ransom.
In February, Somaliland's parliament adopted legislation that classified piracy as a crime, allowing pirates convicted abroad to be transferred to the enclave.
Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 but is still not recognized internationally, said the laws were proof of the territory's commitment to fight maritime attacks off Somalia's shores.
Puntland - the area where the MV Leila was held - is notorious for piracy and has frosty relations with Somaliland.
(Reporting by Mark Anderson and Husein Ali Noor; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Yare Bayoumy and Andrew Osborn)