Korean-owned ships freed by Somali pirates - group

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NAIROBI, Nov 4 (Reuters) Pirates have released two South Korean-owned vessels held since May off Somalia in one of the world's most dangerous waterways, a regional maritime group said today.

Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said shipping sources confirmed to him that the two fishing boats, both registered in Tanzania's Zanzibar islands, were released today afternoon.

A US navy spokesman confirmed the fishing vessels, Mavuno 1 and Mavuno 2, had been released and said there were about 24 people on board.

Mwangura said US vessels in the region would probably escort the two freed boats to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

''We understand they were demanding 1.5 million dollars, but the ship owner said he could not afford that,'' Mwangura, speaking from Mombasa, told Reuters.

''We think some sort of ransom must have been paid, but that information will not come out until the ships reach safe water.'' Gunmen attacked the ships off the Somali coast in mid-May as they were on their way to Yemen.

Piracy has been rife off Somalia since the country slid into chaos after warlords toppled military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Many pirates claim to be ''coastguards'' protecting their waters against illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste.

The attacks have been on the rise since Islamists, who controlled most of south Somalia in the second half of 2006, were ousted in January.

After an upsurge of attacks this year, pirates are still holding three other boats, including a Japanese-owned chemical tanker taken last week, plus a Comoros-registered cargo ship and a Taiwanese vessel seized previously.

Reuters NC DB2326

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