Pirates who have held an arms-laden Ukrainian ship for ransom for months off the Somali coast have confirmed they are freeing the vessel.
The MV Faina, a Ukrainian vessel, was seized by pirates in September in the Gulf of Aden, a high-traffic shipping lane off the coast of Somalia known as a hot spot for such hijackings.
"The whole thing is practically over and done with," Sugule Ali, a spokesman for the pirates, told the Associated Press.
"Our plan is to abandon the ship today [Thursday], by early evening at the latest," he said, speaking by satellite telephone from the central Somali coastal town of Harardhere, near where the MV Faina is anchored.
He said the pirates were leaving the scene slowly due to turbulent local waters.
In a statement, the office of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko confirmed the pirates had left the ship, but made no mention of a ransom.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the ship's owners said a ransom had been paid for the ship. Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported a figure of $3.2 million US.
"The ransom has been delivered to the Faina. The owners of the ship so far don't want to comment on this," the spokesman, Mikhail Voitenko, said Wednesday in comments on Russian TV.
"A pile of pirates are counting the haul on the Faina. I hope that nothing will be disrupted and the sailors will soon be able to disembark."
U.S. navy oversees withdrawal
The pirates had originally demanded $20 million US for the ship and its cargo of Soviet-era tanks and weapons.
The U.S. navy was inspecting the departing pirate boats on Thursday to make sure they weren't taking weapons from the Faina's cargo, Voitenko said.
Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said the navy was not taking action against the pirates because it did not want members of other crews still in captivity to be harmed.
"Even when you release Faina, there are still 147 mariners held hostage by armed pirates," Campbell told the Associated Press on Thursday. "We're concerned for their well-being."
Last year, Somalia became the global piracy hot spot with 111 attacks on ships reported and 42 vessels seized.
Somalia does not have a coast guard or navy and has been without a functioning government since militant groups overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.