Somali pirates slash ransom demand for Taiwanese and others hostages

Somali pirates holding 48 Asian fishermen and their three vessels have lowered their ransom demand during government-brokered negotiations, a human rights activist said.

Somali pirates, who have been holding the fishermen and their vessels near the southern Somali port of Kismayo since Aug. 15, originally demanded US$500,000 (Ђ399,000) for each of the three boats and their crews. They agreed to accept US$50,000 (Ђ39,900) during negotiations with the Malaysian agent for the Taiwan trawlers, Ali Bashi, chairman of the Fanole Human Rights Center, said Tuesday.

The hostages include three Taiwanese captains and 45 crew members from Indonesia, China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Somalia's Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullahi Sheik Ishmail, in comments to the local media, acknowledged negotiating a ransom could damage the country's already poor international image, but said officials had to act to ensure the safety of foreign hostages.

Piracy has been common along the coast of this chaotic country. Several ships a month are attacked or hijacked, with valuables stolen and crews held for ransom. The MV Semlow, a ship carrying World Food Program supplies to Somali victims of last December's tsunami, has been held by gunmen since late June.

Rene McGuffin, a Kenya-based WFP spokeswoman, said via e-mail Tuesday that the U.N. organization continued to call for "the immediate release of the MV Semlow, its crew and its cargo."

The London-based International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy around the world, said last month that piracy off Somalia was increasing "at an alarming rate," with 20 incidents reported since March, compared to just two in 2004. IMB director Pottengal Mukundan said Tuesday the reasons for the increase were unclear.

The deal for the Asian fisherman was brokered by officials in Somalia's transitional government, including the Minister for Reconstruction Barre Aadan Shire _ whose Juba Valley Alliance controls the region, Bashi said.

Taiwanese officials had asked for international help in contacting the gunmen, and talked to the hostage-takers last week in an effort to negotiate a lower ransom.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Warlords then turned on each other, plunging the country of 7 million into chaos, AP reported.

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