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Somali Pirates Free Iranian-Chartered Ship

TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Somali pirates have released an Iranian-chartered ship which was seized off the coast of Yemen in November, Iran's biggest shipping firm said on January 10, a day after a Saudi supertanker was freed for a $3 million ransom.

The "Delight," which was hijacked on its way to Iran from Germany carrying 36,000 tonnes of wheat, was freed with its 25 crew late on January 9 after 53 days in captivity, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) said.

It did not say whether any ransom had been paid. Iran last month said it had dispatched a warship to the Gulf of Aden to protect Iranian vessels against pirates.

Somali pirates caused havoc in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in 2008, hijacking dozens of ships including the Hong Kong-flagged "Delight" and Saudi supertanker Sirius Star with its $100 million cargo.

IRISL, which chartered "Delight," said it was on its way to Iranian waters with the cargo after being released.

"The 'Delight' ship, which was hijacked by Somali pirates, was released after 53 days on Friday night," IRISL's emergency response committee was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

An IRISL official confirmed the news and said the cargo of wheat was intact: "Nothing has happened to the cargo. The cargo has not been touched," he said, declining to be named.

On January 9, pirates freed "Sirius Star," whose capture in November drew attention to a surge in piracy off Somalia which worsened dramatically last year as an Islamist insurgency fuelled chaos onshore.

Pirates released a Turkish cargo ship, the MV Yasa Neslihan, earlier this week after its owners paid a ransom. The bulk carrier was carrying 77,000 tonnes of iron ore from Canada to China with 20 crew aboard when it was hijacked last October.

Piracy in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes has sent insurance prices soaring, prompted some owners choose to go round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and brought an unprecedented deployment of warships to the region.

The U.S. Navy said on January 8 it was planning to launch a force to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, an offshoot of an earlier mission. Chinese warships also began anti-piracy patrols off Somalia this week.

Spain will send up to 395 military personnel and a patrol plane to the waters off Somalia to defend merchant ships from pirates, the government said on January 9.