By John Acher
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Somali pirates have freed a Danish family of five and two crew captured while sailing off the Horn of Africa in February, Danish officials said on Wednesday before they were due to return to Denmark.
Armed pirates captured the family -- Jan Quist Johansen, his wife and three children -- and two crew members when they hijacked the group's 43-foot sailboat, SY ING, about 600 miles east of Somalia.
"The seven Danes are well considering the circumstances," the Danish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "They are expected to be back in Denmark shortly."
Pirate gangs plaguing the shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean typically target large merchant ships, with oil tankers the prize catch, but the snatching of foreigners can also yield high ransoms.
A pirate, who identified himself as Hussein, told Reuters by telephone from the coastal village of Ras Bina in Somalia's Puntland region: "We received a $3 million ransom (on Tuesday) afternoon."
Danish officials declined to comment on whether a ransom was paid.
The pirates in the strategic sea lanes linking Europe to Asia and Africa have made about $80 million in ransoms since September last year, regional maritime experts say.
Days before the February 24 attack on the Johansens, who had been sailing from the Maldives to the Red Sea, pirates shot dead four American sailors in the same area of the Arabian Sea in a hostage standoff.
The Danish foreign ministry also said that six seamen -- two Danes and four Filipinos -- from the freight vessel MV Leopard were still being held by pirates in an unrelated case.
Pirates in southern Somalia are also holding two South Africans seized from their yacht late last year. In November 2010, another gang released the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler after holding them captive for more than 14 months.
Andrew Mwangura, a regional maritime expert and maritime editor of Somalia Report, said a flurry of ransom deals and the end of the monsoon rains meant it was likely the pirates would resume their hijacking spree after a lull for the bad weather.
"The seas have flattened after the monsoon, so we are expecting a surge in attacks again. They have to release vessels so they can hijack and (have room to) anchor others," Mwangura said.
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu and Richard Lough in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by David Clarke)