(AP) — A merchant ship carrying tanks and weapons held by pirates off the coast of Somalia since September has been freed, Ukraine's president announced Thursday.

A spokesman for the owners of the MV Faina said on Wednesday that a ransom was paid on to the pirates. The brief statement from the office of President Viktor Yushchenko did not refer to a ransom, but said the ship was freed as the result of an operation involving special-services agents from Ukraine.

The Faina is loaded with military hardware and there had been fears the arms would fall into the hands of al-Qaida-backed Somali insurgents.

Presidential spokeswoman Irina Vannikova was quoted as telling Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency that "the ship is now under the guard of forces of the U.S. navy and is preparing to head for the Kenyan port of Mombasa."

One of the pirates told The Associated Press by satellite telephone that some of the pirates remained on board.

"We are not holding it (the ship) now anymore," said Aden Abdi Omar, one of those who left the ship. "But our men should disembark first for it to move to wherever it wants."

The U.S. Navy said it appeared the ransom was dropped Wednesday.

"We have all indications that a ransom was paid regarding Faina," Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, told the AP on Thursday.

Christensen said U.S. Navy ships, monitoring the Ukrainian arms ship, "saw something that could be a ransom, dropped on the ship on Wednesday."

Omar said two boats have been sent to collect more than two dozen other pirates still on board. He said he would give more details later.

Mikhail Voitenko, a spokesman for the ship's owner, said the pirates had received a ransom on Wednesday. He did not say how much was paid, but ITAR-Tass news agency put it at $3.2 million. The pirates originally demanded $20 million.

The MV Faina carrying a cargo of tanks, other weaponry and about 20 mostly Ukrainian crew members was seized by bandits in September off the Somali coast. Ships of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet surrounded it to be sure the cargo did not get into the hands of Somali insurgent groups linked to al-Qaida.

"The ransom has been delivered to the Faina. The owners of the ship so far don't want to comment on this, but I'm getting information on this just about every half-hour," Voitenko said in comments on Russian TV Wednesday. "A pile of pirates are counting the haul on the Faina. I hope that nothing will be disrupted and the sailors will soon be able to disembark."

Voitenko did not answer repeated phone calls seeking further comment.

The seizure of the Faina was one of the most daring attacks by Somali pirates in recent years.

Last year Somalia become the global piracy hotspot. A total of 111 attacks on ships reported, with 42 of them being seized.

Somalia does not have a coast guard or navy because it has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. They then turned on each other, reducing Somalia to anarchy and chaos.


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