09/07/2011 09:34 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

Somali pirates free Danish family, crew

By John Acher and Mohamed Ahmed

COPENHAGEN/MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali pirates have freed a Danish family of five and two crew captured while sailing off the Horn of Africa in February after receiving a $3 million ransom, a pirate told Reuters on Wednesday.

Armed pirates captured the family -- Jan Quist Johansen, his wife and three children -- and two crew members when they hijacked the group's 43-foot sailboat, SY ING, about 600 miles east of Somalia.

Danish officials said the released family and crew members were flying back to Denmark, but declined to comment on whether a ransom was paid.

"The seven Danes are well considering the circumstances," the Danish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "They are expected to be back in Denmark shortly."

Pirate gangs plaguing the shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean typically target large merchant ships, with oil tankers the prize catch, but the snatching of foreigners can also yield high ransoms.

A pirate, who identified himself as Hussein, told Reuters by telephone from the coastal village of Ras Bina in Somalia's Puntland region: "We received a $3 million ransom (on Tuesday) afternoon."

"The Danish state has not been involved in the contacts with the pirates -- the contacts have been handled by the relatives of the seven Danes," Charlotte Slente, head of Danish consular services, told Reuters.

"They have been advised by a private security company that has experience in those matters," Slente said.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who is in a close race to try to win four more years in office in a September 15 election, welcomed the news of the captives' release.

"I am first and foremost sincerely happy on behalf of the family which has since the 24th of February been subject to the most horrible thing one can imagine," Rasmussen said on Danish TV2 News, declining to discuss whether any ransom was paid.

"The foreign ministry has very clear traveling guidance, and there is a clear recommendation not to sail into waters that are characterized by hostage taking. So that should be a warning for all to think carefully," Rasmussen said.

The pirates in the strategic sea lanes linking Europe to Asia and Africa have made about $80 million in ransoms since September last year, regional maritime experts say.

Days before the February 24 attack on the Johansens, who had been sailing from the Maldives to the Red Sea, pirates shot dead four American sailors in the same area of the Arabian Sea in a hostage standoff.

The Danish foreign ministry also said that six seamen -- two Danes and four Filipinos -- captured from the freight vessel MV Leopard in January were still being held by pirates in an unrelated case.

Andrew Mwangura, a regional maritime expert and maritime editor of Somalia Report, said a flurry of ransom deals and the end of the monsoon rains meant it was likely the pirates would resume their hijacking spree after a lull for the bad weather.

"The seas have flattened after the monsoon, so we are expecting a surge in attacks again. They have to release vessels so they can hijack and (have room to) anchor others," Mwangura said.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Nairobi and Mette Fraende in Copenhagen; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by David Clarke and Karolina Tagaris)