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August 24, 2009

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Kidnapped fishermen sail home

A GROUP of Egyptian fishermen who were kidnapped by pirates off the Somali coast four months ago and managed to overpower their captors sailed home to a hero's welcome yesterday, but some details of their dramatic escape remained a mystery.

Wearing brand new tracksuits, the nearly three dozen fishermen disembarked in the port city of Suez into the waiting arms of hundreds of relatives and friends, as traditional Egyptian drummers and dancers performed in the background. One mother fainted from the joy of seeing her son return.

"We were very sad, and I was crying for the past months," said 21-year-old Nagwa Ibrahim, who was at the port with her young son to welcome home her husband. "Now we are so excited, and I just can't believe that he will be back with us."

The fishermen, whose two vessels were hijacked in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, spoke freely of how harrowing the experience had been, but were cagey about exactly how they managed to overpower their captors and seize eight of them, who they brought back to Egypt to stand trial.

"There were days we didn't think we'd survive," said Syed Sobhi, a 20-year-old fisherman from Kafr el-Sheik, 180 kilometers north of Cairo. "We were so humiliated and went to sleep hungry every day."

The pirates initially demanded millions of dollars to free the captives but eventually lowered their ransom demand to US$800,000.

When pressed on how they managed to escape, Sobhi said they were aided by Somali gunmen who boarded the ship and helped attack the pirates - corroborating the version of events provided by the owner of one of the boats, Mohammad Nasr, who said the owner of the second vessel, Hassan Khalil, hired the Somalis.

But Khalil, who was present at yesterday's homecoming, denied he hired the gunmen. He refused to comment on Nasr's claim that he paid the pirates a down payment of US$200,000 in order to board his boat, Momtaz 1, and set in motion the rescue plan. Khalil said any ransom paid was a "secret matter."


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