Mogadishu - A South African couple kidnapped by Somali pirates 20 months ago aboard a yacht in the Indian Ocean have been freed and flew out of Somalia on Thursday.
Looking thin and stressed, one of the sailors, Bruno Pelizzari, told reporters the release followed a negotiated settlement. He did not say if a ransom had been paid.
“Today we are happy to get our freedom back,” Pelizzari said at the presidential palace complex in the Somali capital Mogadishu.
Pelizzari and his companion Debbie Calitz later left the Horn of Africa nation for Djibouti, two sources in the Somali prime minister's office said.
The South African government thanked the Somali government and Italy for their roles in securing the release of the couple. It did not give any details about the roles played.
Armed pirates hijacked the yacht Choizil in October 2010 as it was about to enter the Mozambique channel south of the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam.
The sea bandits rerouted the boat north to Somalia where a French warship began tracking it because it was sailing suspiciously close to the coastline.
After attempts to contact the yacht failed, the warship launched a boarding team which came under fire from the yacht.
The Choizil ran aground, pirates took Pelizzari and Calitz ashore, but the captain refused to leave and was later rescued.
The pirate gang initially demanded $10 million from the pair's families.
The ransom demand dropped as low as $500,000 in March last year, according to a blog set up to highlight their plight, but was raised again as negotiations stumbled.
Somali pirates continue to threaten vital shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. More than 20 years of war and famine have worsened prospects for Somalis, adding to the appeal for many young men of crime on the high seas.
Despite successful efforts to quell attacks and disrupt pirate camps, international naval forces have limited resources to patrol vast distances.
Last year, the pirates raked in more than $150 million in ransoms.
Weeks after the South African couple were abducted, pirates released British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler who had been kidnapped in 2009 sailing off the Seychelles.
Somali pirates still hold at least 10 vessels and about 200 crew members of different nationalities as hostages.
“I call on the pirates to release all other hostages,” Somalia's Minister of Defence Hussein Arab Isse said. - Reuters