Pirates release family seized on round-the-world adventure

Somali pirates have released a Danish family who were kidnapped from their yacht in February during their round-the-world voyage, the Danish foreign ministry announced on Wednesday, amid reports of a ransom payment.

The Johansen family, including three teenagers, and their two Danish crew “have been released and brought to safety”, the ministry said, adding that all were well and would return to Denmark soon.

Denmark gave no details of their release but maritime monitoring group Ecoterra International said a ransom was air-dropped to pirates, which local Somali sources said amounted to up to four million dollars.

Jan Quist Johansen, his wife Birgit Marie and their three children aged 13 to 17 left Denmark in August 2009 on a round-the-world trip voyage. They had initially planned to return at the end of this summer.

They and their two Danish crew had been sailing some 300 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia when they were seized by pirates on February 24.

“Mediation was going on between the pirates and individuals working on their release in the past two weeks,” said Abduwahab Ali, an elder in the coastal village of Bandarbeyla, close to pirate bases in the northern Puntland region.

“They were finally freed after the pirates agreed to a ransom of three million dollars,” he said.

A Somali pirate who gave his name as Guhad also said he had heard “the Danish family was released with a ransom payment between three and four million dollars after long mediation talks.”

No state involvement
Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen told news agency Ritzau the government was “in no way” involved in the ransom payment, stressing that friends of the family and crew had handled the negotiations with the captors.

“The Danish state never pays ransom on principle and has not negotiated their release,” she said, but gave no details of the talks.

The Johansens and their crew were reportedly moved to the mountain village of Hul-Anod in Puntland in March, but after a failed attempt by government troops to free them they were transferred to a captured Greek vessel being used as the pirates’ mother ship.

According to Ecoterra, quoting locals, the Danes were released from captivity on a large cargo ship, put onto a small skiff and then picked by up a “waiting naval vessel.”

The couple were criticised in Denmark after their abduction, accused of acting irresponsibly by taking their children into pirate-infested waters.

‘Experienced sailors’
“The couple are experienced sailors. They were virtually born on a boat. They are very responsible, full of enthusiasm, and they adore the sea and their children,” Carlo Knudsen, a neighbour in Kalundborg, told Agence France-Presse in February.

According to the family’s travel blog, they were well aware of the danger and were taking measures to avoid an attack.

“We ... set up an anti-piracy plan to know what to do if we are attacked, and each day we send our position” to an international naval force monitoring the Indian Ocean, father Jan posted on the blog on February 19.

“There has never been a (pirate) attack on a sailboat that has followed the recommended route,” he said.

And just a day before they were captured, 15-year-old son Hjalte wrote in the blog that “nothing has happened outside the usual, except that we have had a halfway-there party.”

Nonetheless, his father Jan “has sent about 1 000 emails again to everybody that we have NOT been attacked by pirates”, he wrote.

More hostages
Denmark said Wednesday the pirates were still holding six sailors, two Danes and four Filippinos, from the cargo ship Leopard, which was seized in January.

“Amid our happiness, we must not forget the other hostages,” Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen said.

Somali pirates frequently seize crew from merchant ships in the dangerous waters off the conflict-ravaged Horn of Africa nation and have taken millions of dollars in ransoms for their release.

According to Ecoterra, at least 50 vessels and at least 528 hostages are being held by Somali pirates.—AFP

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