MOGADISHU Somali militants freed pirate gang leaders detained last week after agreeing on a cut for future ransoms as well as a deal to have hijacked ships anchor at the port town of Haradhere, pirates sources said on Tuesday.
The Al Shabaab rebels, who profess loyalty to al Qaeda, said they had settled a multi-million dollar deal to receive a 20 percent cut in all future ransoms paid to the pirates, and opened a marine office at Haradhere to liaise with the pirates.
The rebel group controls major sea ports in southern Somalia, including the port of Kismayo, and seized Haradhere after merging with rival insurgents Hizbul Islam late last year.
"After negotiation we signed the 20 percent ransom share to Al Shabaab and they released our leaders today. Now our relationship with Al Shabaab has improved," a pirate who identified himself as Ali told Reuters by phone from Haradhere.
"They have opened the marine office to improve security and coordination between us. We are happy because we have no other alternatives than agreeing with Al Shabaab demands for us to maintain Haradhere as our base."
Pirate gangs are making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, and despite successful efforts to quell attacks in the Gulf of Aden, international navies have struggled to contain piracy in the Indian Ocean owing to the vast distances involved.
Ahmed Wardhere, who attended the negotiations as a representative of the local community, confirmed the agreement.
"Pirates who previously belonged to Al Shabaab signed the agreement first and then the other pirates agreed. Only a small group of pirate gangs who refused the agreement moved away with their ship towards the deep shores of Hobyo, he added.
A yacht with four Americans on board is believed to have been hijacked in the Arabian Sea, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi said on Saturday.
Western officials have long worried that some of the money from piracy is making its way into the hands of extremists to fund violence in Somalia.
Shipping industry associations have warned that over 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil supply passing through the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea is at risk from Somali pirates, who are able to operate ever further out to sea and for longer periods, using hijacked vessels as mother ships.
(Reporting by Mohamed Ahmed; Editing by James Macharia and Maria Golovnina)