MOGADISHU, September 27 – Somali pirates have demanded a Sh2.6 billion ransom for the release of a Ukrainian freighter carrying a shipment of tanks and grenade launchers for the Kenyan military, a regional maritime official said Saturday. The MV Faina was seized on Thursday with a crew of 21 people on board as it neared the Kenyan port of Mombasa with a cargo of T-72 battle tanks, grenade launchers and ammunition destined for Mombasa.
"They are demanding 35 million dollars for the ransom, but I think it is the start of the negotiation," said Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program.
Piracy is rife off the coasts of war-torn Somalia but this incident has threatened to make it a more global security problem with Russia now sending a warship to rescue the stricken vessel — three of whose crew are Russian.
An official from the semi-autonomous northeastern region of Puntland said the freighter was headed Saturday for pirate strongholds in central Somalia.
"The pirates are heading towards Hobyo and Haradere and it seems that they are looking for chances to unload any light military supplies on board the ship," said Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, an advisor to the Puntland presidency.
In a sign of the scale of the problem, Somali pirates holding more than a dozen merchant ships hostage released a Japanese vessel Saturday for a ransom of two million dollars, a local official said.
Egypt’s MENA news agency also reported that pirates had released an Egyptian ship with 25 crew on board which was hijacked earlier this month off Puntland.
Qabowsade said he had received reports that the pirates who seized the tank-laden Ukrainian freighter were preparing for a battle.
"We are getting information that the pirates are getting ready" to respond if attacked, he said. "They deployed more armed men into the waters."
The Russian navy has sent the frigate Neustrashimy (Fearless) to the region in response to what it said was a "rise in pirate attacks, including against Russian citizens."
Haradhere, about 410 kilometres north of Mogadishu, and Hobyo, about 120 kilometres further north, are in an area controlled by Islamists who launched an insurgency against the Somali government in early 2007.
Residents of Haradhere interviewed by AFP said boats of pirates were seen early Saturday heading for Hobyo.
"I saw heavily armed pirates on board several speedboats heading towards Hobyo where the hijacked ship is believed to be coming," said local fisherman Adan Nile.
Meanwhile, a maritime watchdog reported that a Greek chemical tanker with 19 crew on board had become the latest vessel to be hijacked by Somali pirates in the notoriously dangerous Gulf of Aden.
Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur said the tanker was hijacked on Friday while it was on its way to the Middle East from Europe.
The coastal waters off Somalia, which has not had an effective central government for more than 17 years and is plagued by insecurity, are considered to be among the most dangerous waterways for shipping in the world.
Last year more than 25 ships were seized by pirates in Somali coastal waters despite US navy patrols, according to the International Maritime Bureau.