By Abdiqani Hassan
BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - Somali pirates have released a chemical tanker they hijacked a year ago with about 20 crew on board after receiving a ransom, the pirates and a minister from the semi-autonomous Puntland region said on Saturday.
The pirates said they had abandoned the UAE-owned MV Royal Grace, which was seized off Oman on March 2 last year. "We got off the vessel late last night. We happily divided the cash among ourselves," a pirate who identified himself only as Ismail told Reuters by telephone.
The European Union's anti-piracy taskforce, EU Navfor, said its flagship, ESPS Mendez Nunez, had sighted the Royal Grace during a counter-piracy patrol 20 nautical miles off the northern Somali coast. The tanker was sailing north from its pirate anchorage at a speed of 4 knots.
"Shortly afterwards, ESPS Mendez Nunez received a radio call from the master of the MV Royal Grace, who confirmed that his ship was now free of pirates," EU Navfor said.
A medical team boarded the tanker with food and water. The crew were checked over, with two being given medical treatment, the taskforce said in a statement.
It said the Royal Grace was now sailing to Muscat under escort from another EU Navfor warship, ESPS Rayo.
Civil war after the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 left Somalia without effective central government and full of weapons. The turmoil opened the doors for piracy to flourish in the Gulf of Aden and deeper into the Indian Ocean.
Said Mohamed Rage, minister of ports and anti-piracy for Puntland - a region in northeast Somalia - confirmed the ransom and the release of the Panama-registered Royal Grace.
It was not clear what cargo the tanker was carrying or who paid to free the vessel, but typically ship owners and the owners of cargo pay ransoms through insurance policies.
In 2011, Somali pirates preying on the waterways linking Europe with Africa and Asia netted $160 million and cost the world economy about $7 billion, according to U.S.-based think tank the One Earth Future foundation.
But the number of successful pirate attacks has since fallen dramatically as international navies have stepped up patrols to protect marine traffic and struck at pirate bases on the Somali coast, prompted by soaring shipping costs, including insurance.
Shipping firms have also increasingly deployed armed guards and laid out razor wire on their vessels to deter attacks.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in February granted an amnesty to hundreds of young Somali pirates in a attempt to draw them away from gangs responsible for hijackings and reduce the threat to shipping in the seas off the Horn of Africa state.
(Writing by Richard Lough and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Pravin Char)