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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.
RELIEVED: South African hostages Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz after their release in Somalia's capital Mogadishu yesterday. They were kidnapped by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean 20 months ago. photo: Reuters
Looking thin and stressed, one of the sailors, Bruno Pelizzari, said 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 country for Djibouti, two sources in the Somali prime minister's office said.
South Africa thanked the Italian and Somalian authorities yesterday for the safe return of the couple.
"The couple were released unharmed and are receiving consular support from the South African mission to Somalia, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya," said Department of International Relations spokesman Nelson Kgwete.
"Arrangements are being made for the return of the couple to South Africa."
He said South Africa's ambassador to Somalia, Ndumiso Ntshinga, was in contact with the couple.
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 and pirates took Pelizzari and Calitz ashore, but the captain refused to leave and was later rescued.
The pirate gang initially demanded $10-million (about R82-million) from the pair's families.
The ransom demand dropped as low as $500000 (about R4.1-million) 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.
Last year, the pirates raked in more than $150-million (R1.2-billion) 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.