By Abdi Guled and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali pirates freed a Greek-flagged tanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil on Monday, a day after the biggest ransom yet paid to them was dropped onto its deck, the pirates and a maritime official said.
The Maran Centaurus was seized on November 29 with 16 Filipinos, nine Greeks, two Ukrainians and a Romanian on board. An aircraft dropped a ransom believed to be between $5.5 million and $7 million onto the vessel on Sunday, officials said.
"We have agreed to solve our disagreements and release the ship. It is free and sailing away now," one of the pirates, Hassan, told Reuters by telephone. "The crew are all safe." Another pirate and a regional maritime official confirmed that the tanker, hijacked near the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean, was freed on Monday.
The ransom dwarfed sums paid previously for vessels held by Somali sea gangs. A dispute between two rival pirate groups over the spoils had delayed its release.
Ecoterra International, a Nairobi-based group that monitors shipping off Somalia, said two pirates had been killed in a gun battle with a rival gang as they returned to shore.
"The stash of the record-breaking ransom ... is reportedly now held in a heavily guarded house in Haradheere," it said, adding that the pirate-run port was now very tense because the sharing of the funds had not yet taken place.
"(The) pirates bragged that they even had dished out $500,000 to the crew for what they call 'good co-operation'."
SHIP OWNER "DELIGHTED"
On Sunday, pirates on board the tanker and rivals in speedboats fired at each other in a tussle for control of the vessel before the ransom was due to be delivered.
The pirates in the speedboats had threatened to set fire to the vessel unless they received a share of the spoils.
Pirates on another hijacked ship nearby and local elders onshore told Reuters helicopters from Western navies patrolling the waters off Somalia fired at the speedboats, driving them from the area before the cash was dropped.
The Greek owner of the tanker, Maran Tankers Management Inc., said in a statement from Athens it was "delighted" the ship, its crew and cargo had been freed and were now under naval escort to a safe port.
"Maran Tankers Management Inc. will not be releasing any details of the talks which led to the release of the vessel, as they do not wish to provide any information which might in any way encourage further criminal acts of this kind," it said.
A $3 million ransom was paid for the release of another oil tanker, the Sirius Star, in January 2009. Similar sums have been paid subsequently for the release of merchant vessels.
Worldwide piracy attacks rose nearly 40 percent in 2009, with Somali pirates accounting for more than half of the 406 reported incidents, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
Typically, the pirates hold the captured ships and crews hostage until ransoms are paid. The stakes are high for the gunmen in their poor, anarchic Horn of Africa country.
At the end of last year, Somali pirates were holding at least 12 vessels for ransom, with 263 crew members of various nationalities as hostages, the IMB said last week.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Nairobi and Renee Maltezou in Athens; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)