Somali pirates released a hijacked ship and its 19-man crew after they found out it was picking up food aid for their hungry countrymen, a Somali clan elder said Monday.

NATO said that pirates attacked two other ships the same day, a Maltese-flagged vessel before dawn and a Panama-flagged cargo ship around midday. Both ships escaped without harm.

The MV Sea Horse was hijacked on April 14 with 19 crew members as it headed to India to pick up more than 7,300 tons of food destined for Somali, U.N. World Food Program (WFP) spokesman Peter Smerdon said.

The WFP is feeding 3.5 million Somalis this year, about half of the country's people. That requires shipping 43,000 tons of food every month, some 90 percent of that by sea transportation.

The pirates also were paid a ransom of $100,000 Sunday by two Somali businessmen for freeing the aid ship, said Muhidin Abdule Nur, a pirate who claimed to be part of the gang that captured the ship.

The recent surge in Somali piracy has alarmed countries and businesses across the key water between Europe and Asia.

Pirates have attacked more than 80 ships this year alone. According to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau, the pirates are holding at least 17 ships and around 300 crew members, and can earn$1 million or more in ransom for each ship seized.