NAIROBI, Nov 5 (Reuters) Somali pirates today freed a Taiwanese vessel held since May, following the release a day earlier of two South Korean ships that were then sailed to Yemen under U.S. Navy escort.
Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said the Taiwanese ship and its 12 crew, eight Kenyan and four Taiwanese, were freed from a pirate-held port north of Mogadishu.
''The Ching Fong Hwa No. 168 has been released today off Harardheere. It has been there since May,'' Mwangura told Reuters.
''We hear the crew is safe.'' The United States Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, confirmed the release, and said it was providing unspecified assitance to the ship.
Mwangura said he did not know whether a ransom had been paid for the boat.
''A ransom was paid,'' said a source familiar with the matter who did not want to be named.
The Taiwanese vessel went free as five US warships were escorting two South Korean vessels to Yemen, after their release yesterday after being held for five months.
The two South Korean boats are registered in Tanzania's Zanzibar islands. The waters off Somalia are some 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.
Somali pirates are still holding two other craft: a Japanese-owned, Panama-flagged Golden Nori chemical tanker they seized last week and the Al Marjan cargo ship registered in Comoros. The U.S. Navy said it was monitoring those ships.
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.
REUTERS NC AS0009