NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- Somali pirates released an oil supertanker and its crew of 28 on Monday after a rival group attacked the hijackers in an unsuccessful attempt to steal the ransom, the European Union naval force said.
The Maran Centaurus was hijacked Nov. 29 about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) off the Somali coast. It was carrying about 2 million barrels of crude oil from Saudi Arabia destined for the United States, estimated to be worth roughly $150 million at the time of the attack.
Cmdr. John Harbour, the spokesman for the European Union's anti-piracy force, said a group of rival pirates had attacked the Greek-flagged Maran Centaurus just before the ransom was being delivered, prompting the pirates onboard the tanker to call for assistance from the anti-piracy force.
Harbour said the EU naval force did not intervene but declined to give details on the actions of other warships in the area. In a statement later, the EU naval force said it dispatched a helicopter to provide any immediate medical assistance to the crew on the ship that is now under naval escort as it leaves Somali waters.
A Somali middleman, who helped negotiate for the release of the ship, says pirates collected $5.5 million Sunday afternoon and left the ship Monday morning. The middleman spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he feared reprisals.
In a statement, the ship's owner declined to give any details about how it negotiated the release of the Maran Centaurus. The Maran Tankers Management Inc. said the crew are safe and well.
The middleman said pirates in two speedboats attacked the ship Sunday just before the ransom was due to be delivered but after a brief shootout, two helicopters from a warship intervened. The middleman said the two helicopters did not fire at any of the pirates, but only hovered over them, successfully scaring off the attacking group.
A Greek coast guard spokeswoman said the tanker had left Somalia escorted by a Greek frigate and was heading to the South African port of Durban. She said all crew members were in good health, and the ship was expected to reach Durban in a week. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Greek government regulations.
The ship, only the second oil tanker captured by Somali pirates, had 9 Greeks, 16 Filipinos, 2 Ukrainians, and a Romanian aboard. Its seizure resurrected fears of an environmental or safety disaster first raised by the capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star. That hijacking was resolved in January last year with a $3 million ransom payment. It was carrying 2 million barrels of oil valued at about $100 million at the time.
The International Maritime Bureau said last week that sea attacks worldwide surged 39 percent last year to 406 cases, the highest in six years. Somali pirates raids on vessels accounted for more than half the attacks.
It said that Somali pirates were responsible for 217 of the global attacks and had seized 47 vessels. This was nearly double the 111 attacks Somali pirates launched in 2008, of which 42 were successful hijackings.
The impoverished Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government for 19 years and the weak U.N.-backed administration is too busy fighting the Islamist insurgency to arrest pirates. Across the Gulf of Aden, tensions between north and south Yemen continue to rise and Islamic militancy is increasing.
Pirates now hold about a dozen vessels hostage and more than 200 crew members.