Nairobi - Eleven sailors mostly from Asia held hostage for almost four years by Somali pirates have been freed and are safe on their way to Kenya, mediators who helped secure their release said Saturday.
The sailors, who had been held in dire conditions and suffered beatings and torture, included seven men from Bangladesh, one Indian, one Iranian, and two from Sri Lanka.
John Steed, a former British army colonel who helped negotiate their release, confirmed they had been freed.
"Currently airborne with hostages," Steed told AFP by text message.
Their boat, the Malaysian-flagged container ship MV Albedo was captured in November 2010 but sank in rough seas last July.
During their captivity, one colleague was shot by the pirates in an argument, and four others drowned.
Seven other Pakistani crew members were released in 2012 after a businessman paid their ransom, but those remaining could not afford the hefty demands of the pirates.
"The crew members and their families have suffered unimaginable distress," United Nations special envoy to Somalia Nicholas Kay said in a statement.
"The crew underwent the trauma of piracy, their ship sinking, and then being held ashore in very difficult conditions."
Exact details of how they were released have not been given, but the United Nations said they had been handed over to their care, and "will be repatriated to their home countries over the coming days."
Reduction in piracy
But no ransom is believed to have been paid.
The sailors, like 38 others from different boats who remain hostage, were abandoned by their ship's owner whose willingness to pay to free them sank with their boat.
"While we have seen a significant reduction in piracy off the coast of Somalia in recent years, I remain deeply concerned that 38 other crew members are still being held hostage," Kay added.
Pirate attacks off Somalia have been slashed in recent years, with international fleets patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, as well as armed guards being posted aboard many vessels.
At their peak in January 2011, Somali pirates held 736 hostages and 32 boats, some onshore and others on their vessels
"I call on those who continue to detain these crew members to release them without further delay so they can rejoin their families and loved ones," Kay said.
On Thursday, three Kenyan aid workers held hostage by pirates in northern Somalia for close to two years were also freed unharmed.
The three, two men and a woman, who had been travelling in a convoy guarded by armed police, were seized by gunmen in ambush in the Galkayo area of the northern autonomous Puntland region of Somalia in July 2012.
The three Kenyans were flown back to Nairobi on Saturday along with the sailors.
Foreign special forces have launched raids to rescue their nationals, including one in 2012 by US elite commandos who swooped in by helicopter to free two aid workers held for three months.
But those left behind come largely from nations without the capabilities or desire to send in troops to rescue impoverished fishermen.