By Mohamed Ahmed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali pirates freed a Panama-flagged chemical tanker and its mostly Tunisian crew on Thursday after payment of a ransom, pirates and the Tunisian TAP news agency said.
The European Union anti-piracy taskforce meanwhile reported that pirates had seized an Indonesian-owned bulk carrier in the Somali basin on Wednesday as it headed for the Suez Canal.
TAP said the 24,105 tonne Panama-flagged Hannibal II had been released and was now headed for Djibouti. Armed pirates hijacked it 860 miles east of the Horn of Africa in November.
A pirate source said $7 million had been handed over but TAP put the figure at $2 million.
"We received a ... ransom late yesterday afternoon and divided it throughout the night. We abandoned the ship early (this) morning," a pirate who identified himself as Abdukadir told Reuters from the coastal town of Lebed.
Andrew Mwangura, a regional maritime expert based in Kenya's port city of Mombasa, confirmed the vessel's release.
The crew is composed of 23 Tunisians, four Filipinos and one each from Russia, Georgia, Morocco and Croatia.
Somalia has lacked an effective central government for two decades and is awash with weapons. The chaos on land has allowed piracy to boom in the strategic waterways off its shores linking Europe to Asia and Africa.
Pirate gangs are making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, and despite successful efforts to quell attacks in the Gulf of Aden, international navies have been unable to contain piracy in the Indian Ocean owing to the vast distances involved.
Separately, the European Union's anti-piracy taskforce said a pirate gang had hijacked the Indonesian-owned bulk carrier MV Sinar Kudus in the Somali basin on Wednesday as it headed for the Suez Canal.
EU Navfor reported up to 50 pirates had boarded the 7,700 tonne ship and were now operating the bulk carrier as a mothership.
By commandeering larger vessels to operate as motherships, pirates have extended their reach as far south as Madagascar and as far as east as a few hundred miles off India.
(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Nairobi and Tarek Amara and Mariam Karouny in Tunis; writing by Richard Lough, editing by Tim Pearce)