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Filipino Crew Home After 5 Mos. Captivity

The 23 crewmen of a Philippine tanker seized by Somali pirates made a tearful homecoming Saturday after more than five months in captivity and several days drifting at sea even following their release.

Greeted at Manila airport by anxious relatives, the crew of the MT Stolt Strength told of fearing for their lives as the brigands threatened them and sometimes fought with one another.

The skipper's wife, Asuncion, said of their arrival, "A thorn had been removed."

The pirates seized the chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden on Nov. 10 while it was on its way to India with a cargo of phosphoric acid. They released the ship and the crew April 21 after $2.5 million in ransom was paid.

"Every day, we feared for our lives," Abelardo Pacheco, the 62-year-old skipper of the Stolt Strength, told The Associated Press. "The threat was ever-present because if we made the wrong move ... we would be shot."

He likened being freed to receiving a pardon after a death sentence.

But their release did not bring immediate relief.

After dropping the pirates close to shore, the ship remained vulnerable, unable to speed to a safe harbor because it was low on fuel.

Pacheco said the crew feared another attack because "we were still in their radars."

German, U.S. and Chinese naval vessels eventually came to their aid, providing food, medicine and fuel, which allowed them to sail to Oman where they stayed for two days before flying home to Manila.

Though the pirates have given the impression of scary competence - attacking oil tankers and cruise ships - the groups are usually ragtag, and this evident disorganization was a source of fear, Second Mate Carlo Deseo said.

They "did not seem to know what they were doing," he said.

He said the crew once had to treat three pirates who were wounded in a gunfight on the ship with fellow pirates. He also patched up a pirate injured while climbing aboard the ship.

Later, the brigand pointed a pistol at his head, demanding his cell phone. The gunman relented when he remembered Deseo had treated his leg wound.

"He laughed and shook my hand," he said, describing the situation as funny.

Still, many of the crew said they might take to the seas again.

"This is the only profession I know," Deseo said, though Pacheco indicated he would look for another job first.

The ordeal almost cost Deseo his faith, he said.

"We all prayed and prayed but nothing happened ... but (God) gave what we have been asking for and I was very thankful," he said.

Meanwhile, it was reported today that Somali pirates have hijacked a British-owned cargo ship crewed by Ukrainians, a NATO spokesman said.

Lt. Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes said the Maltese-flagged Ariana was hijacked in a rare overnight attack northwest of the Seychelles islands about 1,000 miles from NATO's operating area.

The crew members are all Ukrainian, he said, but ship-owner Seven Seas Maritime Ltd. has not given the exact number of people onboard.

In another incident, a Portuguese warship seized explosives from suspected Somali pirates after thwarting an attack on a Norwegian-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden.

It was the first time NATO forces found pirates armed with raw explosives, Lt. Cmdr. Fernandes said from the Portuguese frigate the Corte-Real, the warship that responded to the attack on the tanker.

The four sticks of P4A dynamite - which could be used in demolition, blasting through walls or potentially breaching a the hull of a ship - were destroyed along with four automatic rifles and nine rocket-propelled grenades also confiscated. It was unclear how the pirates planned to use the dynamite, Fernandes said.

The Corte-Real had sent a helicopter to investigate a distress call from the crude oil tanker MV Kition late Friday about 100 miles north from the Somali coast.

The suspects fled to a larger pirate vessel, but were intercepted by the warship an hour later.

"The skiff had returned to the mothership," Fernandes said, referring to the vessels pirates commonly use to tow their small, fast speed boats hundreds of miles out to sea. "Portuguese special forces performed the boarding with no exchange of fire." The Bahamian-flagged tanker also was unscathed, he said.

The 19 pirate suspects were released, however, after consultation with Portuguese authorities because they had not attacked Portuguese property or citizens. Decisions on detaining piracy suspects fall under national law; Fernandes said Portugal was working on updating its laws to allow for pirate suspects to be detained in such situations.

Nearly 100 ships have been attacked this year by pirates operating from the lawless Somali coastline despite the deployment of warships from over a dozen countries to protect the vital Gulf of Aden shipping route. Including the Ariana, pirates are now holding 17 ships and around 300 crew.