In the boat patrolling for pirates (2013)
02:07 - Source: CNN

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The crew of the Aris 13 has been released, four days after being captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia

It is the first major hijacking by pirates in the area in five years.

CNN  — 

Eight Sri Lankan crew members of a fuel tanker hijacked off the coast of Somalia earlier this week have been released unharmed without a ransom payment, according to the Sri Lankan government.

It was the first major hijacking in the east African nation in almost five years, and had raised fears Somali pirates were back in action.

The Aris 13, a Comoros-flagged tanker belonging to a Greek company, was en route from the Somali capital Mogadishu to Djibouti, Somalia’s northern neighbor, when it went missing off the coast near a town called Alula (Caluula).

The European Union Naval Force reported Wednesday that pirates had demanded an undisclosed ransom for the vessel’s return.

But Sri Lankan officials stated Thursday that the boat and its eight crew members had been released without condition or payment.

The Puntland Maritime Police Force, a locally recruited counter-piracy force, exchanged gunfire with the pirates while they were resupplying the Aris 13, according to a statement by non-profit organization Oceans Beyond Piracy.

The Aris 13 had been attempting to pass through the Socotra Gap – a route between Ethiopia and the island of Socotra in Yemen – when it was boarded by the pirates. The route is often used by vessels traveling along the east coast of Africa as a shortcut to save time and money.

“This attack reinforces the need for vessels to follow shipping industry Best Management Practices within the BMP specified High Risk Area,” Oceans Beyond Piracy said, adding that the vessel had been traveling at low speed, making it an easier target.

Combating piracy

Piracy off Somalia’s coast used to cost the world’s shipping industry billions of dollars and was seen as a major threat. But international efforts over the past few years to patrol near the country seemed to have paid off.

A masked and armed Somali pirate stands near a fishing vessel washed ashore. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

The last major attack on a commercial ship by Somali pirates was in 2012, when the MV Smyrni, with a crew of 26 and carrying 135,000 tons of crude oil, was held in a pirate anchorage off the Somali coast for 10 months before being released after an undisclosed ransom was paid.

Somalia, which has suffered from 25 years of conflict, is currently threatened by a famine caused by drought.

Renewed piracy in the shipping lanes would likely impact international efforts to bring food and other aid to the more than 6 million people the UN says are in need of assistance.

CNN’s Iqbal Athas, James Gray and Hilary Clarke contributed to this report.