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Somali troops free 22 hostages held almost three years

By AFP - Dec 23,2012 - Last updated at Dec 23,2012

MOGADISHU — Troops from the Somali region of Puntland on Sunday rescued 22 hostages held by pirates for almost three years after their ship was seized off the Yemeni coast, the authorities said, adding that the men bore signs of torture.

The crew, from the Dubai-owned and Panamanian-flagged MV Iceberg 1 were freed after two weeks of fighting and a siege of the vessel off the coast of Somalia, the Puntland authorities said in a statement.

“Puntland government forces conducting a humanitarian rescue operation have safely rescued 22 hostages on board the MV Iceberg 1 vessel,” according to the statement from the semi-autonomous northern state.

It said the rescue of the multinational crew came after two weeks of “fighting pirates and laying siege to the vessel”.

Government forces first surrounded the vessel on December 10 near the coastal village of Garaad in the Mudug region, lies along the Indian Ocean.

The 4,000-tonne ship was seized in the Gulf of Aden in March 2010 with a crew of 24 people hailing from Ghana, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sudan and Yemen.

“After two years and nine months in captivity, the hostages have suffered signs of physical torture and illness,” the authorities said. “The hostages are now receiving nutrition and medical care.”

Puntland authorities gave no indication Sunday what had become of the two other missing crew members, or whether the pirates were still alive following the rescue operation.

Last year, a spokesman for the European Union naval forces said the Iceberg 1 was the longest-held ship on record.

Several countries including France, Kenya, South Korea and the United States have tried captured pirates and many have imposed tough sentences as part of international efforts to stamp out piracy.

Somalia has been ravaged by a relentless conflict since 1991, and a lack of effective central authority has allowed pirate gangs, extremist militia and other armed groups to control mini-fiefdoms.

However, piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia have plummeted to a three-year low thanks to beefed up naval patrols and teams of armed security guards aboard ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

The political situation in Somalia has also improved, with the UN Security Council hailing the election of a new government in September as a “milestone” for the conflict-stricken state.

The new administration brought eight years of transitional rule by a corruption-riddled government to an end.

But while the pirates have lost ground, the International Maritime Bureau warned in October that Somalia’s waters remain extremely high-risk.

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