Somali pirates abandoned a hijacked Iranian vessel and set its 19-man crew free Thursday after encountering an Italian warship just off the coast of Somalia, NATO said.
Shona Lowe, a NATO anti-piracy spokeswoman, said the SAAD1 transport was released near the port of Garacad on Somalia's Indian Ocean coast, where it was hijacked five months ago and had been anchored.
It was unclear why the pirates set sail on Sunday in their captured ship, but they encountered the Italian frigate Scirocco which was patrolling nearby. On
Thursday, the hijackers abandoned the Iranian ship and returned to Garacad in a dinghy, Lowe said.
"Because our ships are there, the pirates no longer have the freedom they had in the past," she said. "There was no fire fight. It was the presence of the Italian ship that made them leave."
Piracy in the region soared as the rule of law crumbled in Somalia and organized criminal gangs ramped up the lucrative business of boarding ships in the Gulf of Aden or the Indian Ocean - one of the world's busiest sea lanes - and holding them, their crews and cargos for ransoms.
NATO maintains a five-ship flotilla to fight the pirates. The European Union has a separate, squadron in the region as part of its anti-piracy mission known as Operation Atalanta, as do other nations such as the United States, India, Russia, and China.
The London-based International Maritime Bureau says Somali pirates captured 47 vessels last year and launched 217 attacks. More than 100 crew are still being held.