US warships escort freed S Koreans to Yemen

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NAIROBI, Nov 5 (Reuters) Five US warships were escorting two South Korean vessels to Yemen today after the fishing boats were freed by Somali pirates who had hijacked them in May.

The two craft, registered in Tanzania's Zanzibar islands, were freed on Sunday. The waters off Somalia are one of the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.

''By request of the South Korean government, the crew members are on their way to Yemen under escort of five US warships,'' a South Korean Foreign Ministry statement said late on Sunday.

It said all 24 crew -- 10 Chinese, four South Koreans, four Indonesians, three Indians and three Vietnamese -- were safe.

''The government strongly condemns this international act of piracy where innocent crew members were kidnapped and detained for a long time, and proclaims it will join in the international community's effort to stop such actions,'' the statement said.

Gunmen attacked the vessels, the Mavuno 1 and Mavuno 2, off the Somali coast on May 15 as they were travelling to Yemen.

A Kenyan maritime official said yesterday he believed a ransom must have been paid for the boats and crew to be freed.

Somali pirates are still holding three other craft: a Japanese-owned chemical tanker they seized last week, a Taiwanese vessel and a cargo ship registered in Comoros.

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.

Attacks at sea have increased since Islamists who controlled most of southern Somalia for six months last year were routed by the interim government and Ethiopian forces in January.

REUTERS SZ SSC1321

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