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By Abdi Guled
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali pirates on Tuesday freed a Spanish tuna fishing boat hijacked last month and said a $3.5 million (2.1 million pound) ransom had been paid for the vessel and its crew.
The release of the Alakrana, seized along with its 36 crew in the Indian Ocean on October 2, came soon after news that pirates had captured another ship, a Virgin Islands-owned chemical tanker heading for Mombasa.
"The sailors of the Alakrana are free and will be coming home," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a news conference in Madrid.
One of the pirates said the hijackers had left the ship, which had now set sail.
"Our last colleagues left the ship and it was freed," the pirate, who gave his name as Nor, told Reuters. "I think it has sailed away now. The crew is safe and said goodbye to us and to Somali waters."
The European Union naval force said the Alakrana had made contact with two Spanish warships in the area and confirmed that all pirates had disembarked and it had enough fuel on board.
"The captain also reported that the crew of 36 were in good health," a naval force statement said. "The Spanish warships will escort Alakrana to safety."
"SURPRISED AND RELIEVED"
The sister of one of the crew said the sailors were surprised and relieved to be free.
"I spoke to my brother an hour ago. They're still not very excited because it's taken them by surprise. They still don't really believe it, but they're relieved it's all over and want to get into port," Argi Galbarriatu told a news conference in the Basque Country town of Bermeo, where the Alakrana is based.
Earlier, pirate Nor told Reuters that Spain had agreed a ransom of $3.5 million for the Alakrana, one of at least 13 ships held off the Somali coast along with more than 230 crew as hostages.
"The agreement between us and Spain looks satisfactory and we hope it will finish in safety," he told Reuters by phone from the pirate haven Haradheere.
Asked whether a ransom had been paid, Zapatero did not answer directly but said "the government has done what it had to do"
Previously, the pirates had said the vessel would not be freed unless two suspected Somali gunmen captured by the Spanish navy near the tuna ship were freed.
On Monday, a court in Madrid charged the two Somalis with armed robbery and kidnapping.
There was a pause in hijackings during monsoon rains, but the Somali sea gangs have stepped up attacks in the past two months. Attacks off the Seychelles surged when pirates extended their range to evade navies patrolling off the Horn of Africa.
The multinational naval force operating in the area said on Tuesday that pirates had seized a Virgin Islands-owned chemical tanker with 28 North Korean crew members 180 miles northwest of the Seychelles.
The naval force said the 22,294 DWT tanker, the MV Theresa VIII operated from Singapore, had been sailing to the Kenyan port of Mombasa but had turned round after being seized near the Indian Ocean archipelago and was now heading north.
Pirates in Haradheere said they had hijacked the ship on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Jason Webb and Raquel Castillo in Madrid, Michael Holden in London, Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Reuters