Twenty-nine Chinese fishermen who where being held with their vessels by an unidentified group of North Koreans have been released, state media reported yesterday.
Xinhua reported that North Korea's Foreign Ministry had notified the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang of the release and 'there was no news of any ransom being paid by the vessels' owners'. Embassy counsellor Jiang Yaxian said the three vessels and all crew members were on their way back to China.
The fishermen had been held since May 8, when North Koreans in speedboats hijacked their vessels in the Yellow Sea and moved the boats to North Korean waters.
The hijackers initially demanded a ransom of 1.2 million yuan (HK$1.47 million) - 400,000 yuan for each boat - but later agreed to accept 900,000 yuan. The deadline for the money to be paid was Thursday.
Chinese media had reported that officials were pressing North Korean authorities to ensure the safety of the fishermen. Before the official announcement, Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV reported yesterday that the released crewmen were expected to return today to Hengyuan harbour in Dalian city, in the northeast province of Liaoning , with no ransom paid to their hostage-takers.
Jiang was quoted by Xinhua on Friday as saying that the detained crewmen were 'in sound health with sufficient food and health care'.
Xinhua also reported that Ambassador Liu Hongcai and other diplomats had been working on the case 'through negotiations and close contact' with the North Korean side. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday that China had been staying in close contact with North Korea to ensure a quick resolution to the situation.
The vessels' owners told the South China Morning Post last week that Chinese nationals were believed to be behind the hijackings. Citing financial difficulties, they said they did not pay a ransom by Thursday.
One of the owners, Zhang Dechang, said: 'My captain, Han Qiang , told us that some Chinese took part in the kidnapping' and that the crew suspected triad involvement. Zhang said he had spoken with Han by satellite telephone.
Another of the boat owners, Sun Caihui , said several telephone calls the hijackers had made to discuss the ransom came from Chinese mobile numbers.