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South African sailors freed by Somali pirates after 20 months

Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP

Deborah Calitz, left, and Bruno Pelizzari appeared at a news conference hours after they were released by their captors in Mogadishu, Somalia. The two South Africans were held hostage for 20 months.

Two South African sailors were released Thursday after being held captive by Somali pirates for 20 months, according to news reports.

Hussein Arab Isse, Somalia's defense minister, said the Somali army and security forces helped release Deborah Calitz and Bruno Pelizzari, both about 50. Reuters reported that the couple appeared gaunt and ashen at Isse’s side at a press conference hours after their release.

Calitz and Pelizzari were kidnapped by 12 pirates while working aboard the Choizil in October 2010, as the yacht was about to enter the Mozambique channel on its return trip to South Africa.

At the time of their capture, the pirates set a $10 million ransom, although Somali elders told the Agence France-Presse that the amount paid was closer to $750,000.

The couple's captivity is among the longest time hostages have been held by Somali pirates. A British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, were kidnapped from their yacht and held for more than a year; they were freed in November 2010.

Somali pirates free kidnapped UK couple after a year

Kidnapping sailors has proven to be a lucrative business for the pirates, many of whom are young Somali men whose prospects have become increasingly limited by two decades of famine and war. Last year, Reuters reported, pirates collected $150 million from ransoms.

The European Union launched a robust anti-piracy effort in Somalia in 2008; the EU Naval Force’s mission is, in part, to protect humanitarian vessels bringing food to war-torn Somalia.

EU forces attack Somali pirates on land for first time

Although the EU has dispatched 10 naval ships since 2008 to patrol the waters off the Horn of Africa, according to the BBC, the pirates still have 213 hostages. At Thursday’s press conference, Isse said more raids would follow.

"We know the whereabouts of the rest of the hostages, including the French agent, and if the kidnappers fail to free them, we will forcefully rescue them," Isse said, according to AFP, referring to an intelligence agent kidnapped in Mogadishu in 2009.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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