REUTERS- Aug 28 - An Iranian fishing vessel and its crew have escaped after being held captive for five months by Somali fishermen, maritime piracy experts said on Friday, but it was not clear how many crew members had escaped.
Jaber, an Iranian fishing vessel believed to have up to 19 crew, was captured on March 26, along with another Iranian fishing vessel, Siraj. Local officials accused them of illegal fishing in Somali waters.
Although there are still rare cases of sea attacks, piracy in the Indian Ocean has largely subsided in the past three years, mainly due to shipping firms hiring private security details and the presence of international warships.
John Steed, a regional manager for Oceans Beyond Piracy, said Jaber and its crew escaped in early hours of Thursday morning and were pursued by pirates who had been holding the ship close to the shore in Ceel Hur, in central Somalia.
"It looks like the captain took the opportunity of a passing helicopter or whatever, when the guards were distracted and were not on the ship ... and cut his anchors and motored out," Steed, who runs a programme helping hostages, told Reuters.
Kenya-based Steed added that the Iranian ship had reached a vessel which was part of the European Union's international Naval Force protecting the busy shipping lanes from pirates.
Lieutenant Robert Thurmott, spokesman for the EU Naval Force operations, said the force had provided food and water to the Jaber crew on their own vessel. Somali and Iranian officials have been informed about Jaber's situation, he added.
As well as the Siraj crew, only 26 other sailors are held by Somali pirates, from a peak of about 750 at the beginning of the decade, according to United Nations figures.
The last outbreak of Somali piracy cost the world's shipping industry billions of dollars as pirates paralysed shipping lanes, kidnapped hundreds of seafarers and seized vessels more than 1,000 miles from Somalia's coastline. (Additonal reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Editing by Edmund Blair and Toby Chopra)