Somali pirates free 15 Filipino seamen, hold 67

10/9/2008, 7:26 a.m. EDT By HRVOJE HRANJSKI
The Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines (AP) Pirates in Somalia released 15 Filipino seamen and four other crewmen of a chemical tanker hijacked nearly two months ago, but were still holding 67 other Filipino sailors, officials said Thursday.

A spokesman for the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department, Claro Cristobal, said the seamen from the MT Irene, a Japanese-operated vessel, were freed late Wednesday and expected in Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.
"All crew members are safe and sound despite the ordeal they have undergone," he said.

The Philippines, one of the largest suppliers of crewmen in the international shipping industry, has been hit hard by a sharp increase in the number of Somali pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden.

Four ships with 67 Filipino sailors remained in the hands of Somali pirates, including the MV Stella Maris, a Japanese-owned bulk carrier that was seized July 20, Cristobal said.

One Filipino sailor was killed when pirates in speed boats climbed aboard one of two Malaysian tankers last month, which have since been released.

Meanwhile, the 20 crew members aboard a Ukrainian ship hijacked two weeks ago off Somalia's coast and laden with heavy weapons are living in fear of the pirates who seized the vessel, the U.S. Navy said Thursday.

Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman from the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said the Navy is in regular contact with the crew of the MV Faina. "They want it to end peaceful and quickly," he said.

Christensen said the Navy has no information on when the standoff will end but added the U.S. will guard the cargo of the vessel and the welfare of the crew until then.

Six U.S. warships are surrounding the Faina, which was hijacked late last month with 21 crew on board. Officials in Moscow say the ship's Russian captain died of a heart condition soon after the hijacking.
A Russian frigate also is headed toward the standoff.
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Associated Press writer Salad Duhul in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.