MOGADISHU (AFP) - A South African couple seized by pirates in the Indian Ocean and held for 18 months in Somalia was freed overnight, with relatives saying a ransom was paid while authorities spoke only of a raid by security forces.
Family members said they had paid money for the release of Debbie Calitz and Bruno Pelizzari but Somalia's Defence Minister Hussein Arab Isse insisted the two were freed in a rescue operation that lasted throughout the night.
"We definitely paid something for their release," Pelizzari's younger sister Dora Hunt told a television interview, without elaborating.
"The rescue started last night (Wednesday) and lasted until this morning and you can see that the pair were freed safely," Isse told a joint press conference with the couple, who appeared with sunken eyes and ashen faces.
Isse said the raid was a joint operation by security forces and the army and that the couple had been freed from "Al-Qaeda-affiliated" insurgents.
It was not immediately clear whether this meant that the pirates who captured the couple had sold them on to Somalia's Shebab rebels, a group linked to Al-Qaeda.
Hunt said she was grateful the couple were "back and healthy" but said they had "aged" whilst in captivity.
Sources said the two were freed in the lower Shabelle region of southern Somalia, close to Mogadishu.
Calitz and Pelizzari were sailing in the Indian Ocean in 2010 when their yacht was hijacked by 12 pirates who set course for Somalia and took the couple ashore at Baraawe.
South Africa welcomed the news of the couple's rescue.
"The South African government wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the transitional federal government of Somalia following the release on Wednesday... of the couple," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Pretoria said Italy was involved in the rescue operation and thanked it for its role.
"The couple is in good health and eager to be reunited with their loved ones," said the statement.
It did not give details on the rescue operation.
Asked if any ransom was paid, foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said in a text message: "It is not the policy of government to pay ransom."
The Somali defence minister told journalists that more such raids may be staged.
"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," he said, referring to a French intelligence agent seized in Mogadishu in July 2009 and detained since.
Calitz and Pelizzari, both around 50, were working as crew on the yacht Choizil as it sailed from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania toward South Africa when the hijacking occurred on October 26, 2010.
The yacht's skipper, Peter Eldridge, refused to leave with the pirates and was eventually rescued by a vessel from EU NAVFOR, the European Union's anti-piracy mission, on November 7.
Calitz's brother Dale van der Merwe said in January 2011 he had been contacted by people claiming to be the pirates who demanded a ransom of 10 million dollars (7.9 million euros).
Friends and family members of Calitz and Pelizzari had set up a website to raise money to free the pair.
After the couple had spent five months in captivity the ransom demand came down to $500,000, according to the site, but after "interference with negotiations" the pirates again raised the amount to $4 million.
Somali pirates have reportedly received large ransoms in the past to free hostages seized from yachts.
In September 2011 pirates released a Danish family, including three teenage children, and their two crew, also from Denmark, after kidnapping them from their yacht six months earlier.
Maritime monitoring group Ecoterra International said a ransom -- which local Somali sources said amounted to up to $4 million -- had been air-dropped to the pirates to secure the family's release.
A British yachting couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, were freed by their pirate captors in November 2010 after more than a year in captivity.
According to Somali elders and sources close to the negotiations that led to their release, a total ransom of at least $750,000 was paid.