Somalia – Somali pirates received a $4 million ransom to free an Italian tugboat that was seized four months ago with a crew of 16, a member of the gang that held it captive said on Monday.

But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini denied any ransom had been paid, saying the Somali prime minister had personally intervened to secure the release of the Buccaneer.

No ransom has been paid, the pressure on the pirates was enough to make them retreat, Frattini told Italian television after praising Somali authorities and the Italian intelligence service for their part in the release.

In the last three months we've reminded Somalia of the big help that Italy has given it and above all, the help that we've promised to give.

The owners of the Buccaneer, Ravenna-based Micoperi Marine Contractors, said on Sunday the ship was not freed as a result of military action or ransom payment.

But the pirates offered a different account.

We have taken $4 million ransom and freed the Italian tugboat. It has already gone, pirate Aden told Reuters.

Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of regional maritime group, East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, said the pirates received $5 million.

They were counting the money last evening, he told Reuters by telephone.

The Buccaneer was hijacked on April 11 in the Gulf of Aden along with two barges. It is now on its way to the port of Djibouti escorted by naval vessels.

It was crewed by 10 Italians, five Romanians and a Croatian.

A flotilla of foreign naval vessels off Somalia has failed to quell the rampant piracy, which has affected one of the world's busiest shipping lanes that links Europe to Asia.

(Reporting by Abdiqani Hassan and Duncan Miriri in Nairobi; editing by Alison Williams)