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NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — In a siege that lasted nearly two weeks, forces of Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region raided a hijacked ship Sunday and safely rescued 22 hostages who had been held captive for nearly three years, authorities said.
The Puntland government said their forces captured the Panama-flagged MV Iceberg 1, which was docked near the Gara'ad coastal village in Mudung region.
"After two years and nine months in captivity, the hostages have suffered signs of physical torture and illness. The hostages are now receiving nutrition and medical care," a statement said.
Hassan Abdi, a pirate commander, who was in touch with the ship's hijackers, said eight pirates on board the vessel were able to escape as Puntland soldiers closed in.
"None of us has been harmed," Abdi said. Puntland authorities said they had laid siege to the MV Iceberg 1 on Dec. 10.
The rescued crew members include eight Yemenis, five Indians, two Pakistanis, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese and a Filipino, Puntland Ports and Anti-piracy minister Saeed Mohamed Rage told The Associated Press. The ship was hijacked March 29, 2010.
Alan Cole, the head of the U.N.'s anti-piracy program, said the MV Iceberg 1 is one of the longest held by Somali pirates.
Close to 120 seafarers are still held by Somali pirates, though that number is considerably down from the height of the piracy crisis two years ago, when more than 600 hostages were held at once.
Hijackings by Somali pirates have significantly decreased in the last couple of years, because many ships now carry armed guards and there is an international naval armada that carries out onshore raids. In 2010, pirates seized 47 vessels. So far this year, they've taken five, a decrease that could signify that the scourge is ending, though experts say it is too early to declare victory.
The overwhelming majority of hostages have been sailors on merchant ships, though European families have also been kidnapped from their yachts while traveling in the dangerous Indian Ocean coastal waters. Four Americans were killed in February 2011 when the pirates who boarded their ship apparently became trigger-happy because of nearby U.S. warships.
For the pirates, the risks of being arrested, killed or lost at sea are overshadowed by the potential for huge payouts. Ransoms for large ships in recent years have averaged close to $5 million. The largest reported ransom was $11 million for the Greek oil tanker MV Irene SL last year.
The ransoms are often air-dropped down to hijacked ships. Somalia has been mired in conflict since President Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords in 1991 who then turned on each other.