US navy keeps up blocade

September 30, 2008 12:00 am

, MOGADISHU, September 30 – US Navy helicopters on Tuesday buzzed a hijacked Ukrainian freighter carrying battle tanks and arms while talks were held with the pirates, who some reports said had fought among themselves.

The pirates have taken the MV Faina to their lair off Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast and are demanding a Sh1.5 billion ransom. Several US Navy ships are now around the boat and a Russian warship is headed for the region.

"We are still surrounded by foreign ships. There is 24-hour surveillance, helicopters are flying overhead, but no action has been taken against us," the pirates’ spokesman Sugule Ali said over satellite telephone from the ship.

"We are prepared for any eventuality," he warned.

Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Kenya chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Programme, said three pirates were killed during a shootout after a disagreement on what to with with the ship.

"The pirates are paranoid, the situation is very tense in the ship. That is why we are asking the naval ships to pull back and pave the way for negotiations," Mwangura told AFP.

But the pirates denied there had been any fighting or deaths. "We are united as we were before and there was no fighting that took place among us," the spokesman told AFP, calling the claims "propaganda".

The Bahrain-based US Navy Fifth Fleet said several ships and helicopters were in the area to support the destroyer USS Howard. Somali fishermen reported seeing three ships.

"US ships are the only ones in the area right now," Lieutenant Stephanie Murdock, Fifth Fleet spokeswoman, told AFP.

"We will maintain a vigilant watch over the ship and remain on station while negotiations take place," the command said in a statement. "Our goal is to ensure the safety of the crew, to not allow offloading of dangerous cargo."

A Russian warship was to join the surveillance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday.

Helicopters circled overhead as the pirates resupplied the Ukrainian ship, docked at the Somali port village of Hobyo, after it was seized last Thursday.

"The situation on the Ukrainian ship is different today. There are negotiations going on between the pirates and the foreign ships," said Abdikadir Musa Yusuf, deputy seaports minister for the Somali breakaway region of Puntland.

"The pirates agreed not to offload the shipment and were in return given an opportunity to demand whatever they needed," he told AFP.

Another US Fifth Fleet spokesman, Nathan Christensen, said US forces had made contact with the Ukrainian ship through VHF radio.

There are 21 Ukrainians, Russians and Latvians in the crew. The ship’s captain died of an illness on board, according to Russian media.

"We are sticking to the demand for 20 million dollars. This is not ransom, but a fine for unlawfully transporting weapons on Somali waters," Ali said.

The pirates said the arms were headed for Sudan. The Ukrainian owners of the freighter and Kenyan government said the tanks were destined for Kenya.

"We are confirming that these weapons do not belong to the government of Kenya but belong to southern Sudan," Ali added. "But whoever is the weapons’ owner is not our problem, our problem is the 20 million dollars."

Christensen said on Monday that the 33 Soviet-era T72 battle tanks and other military hardware on the MV Faina were destined for Sudan. Christensen attributed the claims to press reports.

Kenya has said the shipment was part of a military deal with Ukraine.

Piracy is rife along Somalia’s long, unpatrolled Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coastline and has become a well-organised industry.

Somalia’s northeastern tip juts out into the Indian Ocean and commands access to the Gulf of Aden, a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which an estimated 30 percent of the world’s oil transits.


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