NAIROBI: Somali pirates have released the Malaysian tanker Bunga Melati Lima following the payment of a S$2.9 million (RM6.87 million) ransom.
However, they have seized a Greek chemical tanker in the notorious Gulf of Eden as well as an Ukrainian freighter carrying weaponry.
Somali pirates are now holding some 15 ships and are attacking further out to sea and on two fronts to evade international security, said Noel Choong, the head of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre.
"Despite the increase in security patrols by the coalition forces in the Gulf of Aden, we are still receiving reports of attacks and hijacks," said Choong.
He warned ships to be on alert even if sailing in the security corridor patrolled by United States-led coalition forces.
A Malta-flagged Iranian oil tanker, a massive vessel the size of a football pitch, had a narrow escape after being pursued by pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
Andrew Mwangura of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme said the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation Berhad-owned Bunga Melati Lima was released yesterday.
Malaysia sent three warships -- KD Lekiu, KD Inderapura and KD Mahawangsa to the area after the Bunga Melati Lima and its sister ship, the Bunga Melati Dua, were hijacked last month.
Mwangura also said that a Japanese ship had been released late on Friday.
The Japanese vessel, the Stella Maris, which was hijacked on July 20, had been loaded with lead and zinc and had some 20 Filipino crew members.
"The Somali pirates released the Japanese ship after they were paid a ransom of US$2 million," said Abdulkadir Muse Yusuf, a deputy minister in the breakaway Somali region of Puntland in the northeast.
"The ship sailed off safely from Garad coastal village where it had been held."
Also yesterday, the Mena news agency reported that an Egyptian ship with 25 crew members on board, which was hijacked earlier this month off Puntland, had been allowed to set sail on Friday.
Mena reported that the released vessel was in international waters on its way back to Egypt.
No details were available on whether a ransom was paid, although it was reported that Somali pirates had asked for one in negotiations with Egyptian intelligence officials.
The Greek chemical tanker hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, has 19 crew members on board, most of them Filipinos.
Choong said the tanker was hijacked on Friday while it was on its way to the Middle East from Europe.
"Somali pirates fired with machine guns before boarding the ship," he said.
The waters off Somalia -- which has not had an effective central government for more than 17 years and is plagued by insecurity -- are considered to be among the most dangerous in the world.
The Ukrainian freighter, the MV Faina, which is flying under a Belize flag and has a crew of 21 on board, including three Russians, was hijacked on Thursday as it neared the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
"The gunmen are demanding US$35 million to release the MV Faina and her crew members," said Mwangura.
The MV Faina is carrying a cargo of 33 T-72 battle tanks, grenade launchers, ammunition and spares for the Kenyan army, officials said.
The haul is a significant seizure in Somalia, where Islamist insurgents have been fighting the government and its Ethiopian military ally for nearly two years.
In response to the hijacking, Russia sent a warship to the region yesterday.
The Russian navy was sending the frigate Neustrashimy (Fearless) in response to "the rise in pirate attacks, including against Russian citizens", Russian navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said on Friday.
The Ukrainian freighter was headed yesterday for the central coastal city of Harardhere, which is in an Islamist-controlled region, an official said.
Kenyan media reported that the pirates had warned against any rescue attempts.
"The pirates are heading towards (the port of) Hobyo and Haradhere and it seems that they are looking for chances to unload any light military supplies on board the ship," said Bile Mohamoud Qabow-sade, an adviser to the presidency of the semi-autonomous Puntland region.
"We are very much concerned over this incident which stirs insecurity if not stopped," he said.
"We are getting information that the pirates are 'getting ready to respond ' if attacked. They deployed more armed men into the waters."
Haradhere, about 410km north of Mogadishu, and Hobyo, about 120km north of Haradhere, are located in an area controlled by Somalia's Islamist movement, which launched an insurgency against the Somali government early last year.
The region is not a typical destination for Somali pirates, who usually take the vessels they seize to the Eyl region, further north about 800km from Mogadishu.
Somalia's coast has become extremely dangerous in recent years due to piracy as the Horn of Africa nation has been without an effective central authority since the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre, which touched off a fierce power struggle.
The Yemeni Coast Guard has set up an anti-piracy unit to address the increasing numbers of armed pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
The Yemen Observer, quoting Coast Guard officials, said the unit would deploy 1,600 specially-trained soldiers to fight the scourge.
It is also equipped with 16 high-speed patrol boats purchased from Australia.
"The aim of the deployment is to enhance the protection of ships and stop Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al Mandab Strait," a Coast Guard official was quoted by the newspaper as saying.