Four days after hijacking a Comoros-flagged oil tanker, Aris 13, with eight Sri Lankans on board, Somali pirates disembarked the vessel and fled empty-handed, leaving the ship and its crew intact to continue along to Bosaso Port, the region’s commercial hub.

Ahmed Mohamed, a security official from the semi autonomous state of Puntland within Somalia, made the announcement to the media on Thursday evening, after negotiations between the pirates on board, local elders, and authorities proved successful.  Only hours earlier, gunfire broke out between pirates on the Aris 13 and Puntland naval forces as they intervened to prevent a small boat with supplies from reaching the hijacked ship.  Four people were injured in the battle, though information regarding the extent of the injuries remains scarce.

After negotiations concluded, the pirates disembarked the vessel on the own accord and were granted passage to flee the area.  Naval forces then immediately boarded the vessel to ensure the safety of the eight crew members that had been held hostage since Monday and to escort it to port.  According to reports, there was no planned rescue mission for the hostages thus far, and naval forces in the area were intended only to cut off the ship from reinforcements and supplies, not to mount an armed incursion.

The pirates reportedly confirmed statements made by locals that they were not an organized militant group, but rather fishermen who had their equipment destroying by illegal international fishing vessels in the region.  A serious drought coupled with the aggressive practices of illegal operations in the waters off the coast of Somalia have left many desperate.  With little agriculture to speak of, they’ve grown to rely on fishing as means of feeding themselves as well as for financial security.

Although it cannot currently be confirmed that the pirates’ story is true, their decision to leave the vessel without receiving any kind of ransom speaks to the legitimacy of their claims, or perhaps simply that they were aware that the outcome of a standoff with the international community would likely be their death or incarceration, rather than a pay-day.

Although piracy had become a serious threat to international shipping in the region around Somalia, years’ worth of international intervention had curbed occurrences of piracy so dramatically in the past few years that some worry authorities in the area have grown complacent.  NATO ceased its anti-piracy operation in the region in December, but a number of reports have indicated that the potential for piracy remains high, particularly in the face of drought, economic turmoil, and illegal fishing.

This incident will likely not be the last time piracy rears its head in the waters around Somalia, as the situation for the citizens of the struggling nation shows no signs of improving.  Without a concerted international effort to slow the encroachment of illegal fishing vessels, many more fishermen will likely cast aside their gear in favor of weapons and a chance at feeding their families at the expense of international shipping or fishing companies.

The fisherman turned pirates reportedly blamed Yemeni, Chinese, Indian, Iranian and Djibouti-flagged fishing boats and trawlers for their decision to take matters into their own hands – though they have not specified which nation’s vessels were responsible for the destruction of their own fishing equipment.