Somali pirates drown with share of ransom

A GANG of pirates drowned as they tried to escape with their share of a £2m ransom for the release of a supertanker held for two months in the Gulf of Aden.

The five dead were among dozens of pirates who held hostages for 55 days, including a Scottish merchant navy officer, on board the Sirius Star tanker which was carrying 66m of oil.

It was reported that the pirates had been squabbling over the ransom cash when stormy conditions threw them out of the vessel. James Grady, from Johnstone in Renfrewshire, who was second officer on the Sirius Star, was held by the pirates for nearly eight weeks before being released with the rest of the crew on Friday. He was last night believed to be unharmed and preparing to return home.

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The Sirius Star was hijacked by the gang of heavily armed pirates on November 16 in the Indian Ocean, south of the Gulf of Aden, one of the most notorious areas for piracy in the world.

The 1,090ft supertanker is the biggest vessel ever to be taken by pirates, illustrating the growing problem of piracy in the Indian Ocean.

The pirates, who moved the ship to the Gulf of Aden, originally demanded more than 16m but after several weeks holding the ship off the Somali coast, the amount was reduced to 2m, which was thought to have been paid on Friday by the owner of the vessel, Vela International Marine Ltd.

US Navy pictures showed a package dropping from a light aircraft on to the deck of the ship, believed to be the ransom money.

Having received the money, the pirates began leaving the tanker in smaller boats but Somali pirate Daud Nure, who was not part of the hijack but knew those involved, said one boat with eight people on board overturned in stormy conditions. He said five people died and three reached the shore after swimming for several hours.

Jamal Abdulle, a resident of the Somali coastal town of Haradheere close to where the ship was anchored, also confirmed the boat sank and that the eight's portion of the ransom money that had been shared between dozens of pirates was lost.

Abukar Haji, the uncle of one of the dead men, said the deaths were an accident. He added: "The boat the pirates were travelling in capsized because it was running at high speed because the pirates were afraid of an attack from the patrolling warships. There has been human and monetary loss but what makes us feel sad is that we still don't have the dead bodies of our relatives. Four are still missing and one has washed up on the shore."

Farah Osman, an associate of the pirates from Haradheere port, said the gang had wanted more money but finally agreed 2m. "The pirates are arguing about division of the money," he said.

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There had been no loss of life before yesterday during the two-month siege, during which the pirates were said to have treated the crew well.

Last night Vela International Marine president Saleh K'aki said he was relieved that crew members were safe. "I am glad to say that they are all in good health and high spirits," he said. "This has been a very trying time for them and certainly for their families. We are very happy to report to their families that they will be on their way home soon. Throughout this ordeal, our sole objective was the safe and timely release of the crew."

In Scotland, residents of Johnstone in Renfrewshire celebrated the safe release of Grady, who will soon be reunited with his wife Margaret and sons Paul and Phil.

Johnstone councillor Iain McMillan said: "People in Johnstone are delighted that James is safe, he's well known in his community and he's involved in the tenants' and residents' association.

"People have been worried about him, and they are very glad he has come through it and that he will be hopefully travelling back to the United Kingdom soon. His family will be very happy when he is home."

He added: "It sounds so bizarre that a guy from our own wee town has been held by pirates. I will pass on all the good wishes for him that I have received from people."