Somali pirates on Thursday began leaving a Ukrainian ship laden with tanks and other weapons after receiving a ransom, one of the pirates said.
Fourteen gunmen and the pirates' commander disembarked from the MV Faina, which has been held by the pirates for five months, said Aden Abdi Omar, one of those who left the ship. Omar spoke to The Associated Press by satellite phone from the central Somali coastal town of Harardhere, not too far from where the MV Faina is anchored.
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, reported AP.
Hours earlier 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 Russia's 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 have surrounded it to be sure the cargo does 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.
A person involved in the negotiations told The Associated Press that a plane carrying the ransom left Kenya's capital, Nairobi, Wednesday afternoon and dropped it on the Faina. The man spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Normally Somali pirates take time to confirm their ransom, using money-counting machines and verifying the cash is genuine. Once they do that, they then release the vessel they are holding.
The person involved in the negotiations said the ship could be released Thursday. But the pirates holding the Faina have in the past given dates for releasing the vessel, only for those to pass without any word or explanation.
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 with 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.