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Mwangura denies link with pirates

NAIROBI, October 2 – Maritime official Andrew Mwangura’s lawyer says his client hasn’t had direct contact with the pirates holding the Ukrainian ship carrying contentious arms.

Francis Kadima told Capital News that the information Mwangura had been relaying to the media came from his sources in the Ukranian and Russian chapters of the Seafarers Assistance Programme. Mr Kadima said those officials have been in touch with their sailors on board the hostage vessel.

“They (police) were largely looking at the sources of his information and seeking to verify the authenticity of the allegations,” Mr Kadima said of the police probe.

Police on Wednesday night arrested the Kenya Seafarers boss. They said they were holding him over what he knows of the pirates, the ship and allegations that the military cargo was heading for Southern Sudan and not Kenya.

Mr Kadima said the charge police are likely to levy on his client is bailable.

“If they think they have evidence, let them charge him. If they feel his statements are alarming and made without any basis or foundation, let them take him to court and prove the charges,” he said.

Mr Mwangura  handed himself over to the police shortly after 9pm following advice from his lawyer after spending the day in hiding at the offices of a local newspaper.

Police sources say Mr Mwangura has been very vocal with the media and appears to know a lot about the ship and its cargo’s destination.

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Earlier this week, Mr Mwangura said authorities had gagged him for speaking to the media on the piracy saga.

“I have been instructed not to speak to you people (journalists) any more. That’s all!” he told Capital News when reached for comment earlier this week before hanging up the phone.

Mr Mwangura has been a vocal advocate for seafarers rights, revealing the fate of hijacked vessels, the state of the hostages and ransoms, if any is paid.

The pirates have demanded Sh1.5 billion to release the MV Faina, which was accosted by the buccaneers a week ago as it approached Mombasa.

An armada of US vessels has closed in on the Faina.

Meanwhile, Somali Islamist militants on Thursday urged pirates holding a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and military hardware to destroy the cargo and the vessel if they are not paid ransom.

As US warships and other navies blockaded the MV Faina off Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast, the pirates have insisted on being paid the ransom to release the cargo and the 21-member crew.

"If they do not get the money they are demanding, we call on them to either burn down the ship and its arms or sink it," Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, a spokesman for the Shabab movement, told AFP in an interview.

But Robow said his movement, which is gradually gaining ground over government troops in southern Somalia, was not linked to the pirates who seized the Belize-flagged freighter last week as it headed for Mombasa in Kenya.

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"We have no contacts and links with the pirates and they are in the waters for their own interests."

"It is a crime to take commercial ships but hijacking vessels that carry arms for the enemy of Allah is a different matter," added Robow, whose movement nearly stamped out piracy when it controlled southern Somalia last year.

Robow claimed that the 33 Soviet-era T72 battle tanks and other military hardware on the MV Faina belonged to Ethiopian forces, who are propping up the embattled Somali government in the capital Mogadishu.

"We believe that the military shipment belonged to Ethiopia and was headed to Mogadishu seaport, where it would have been unloaded with the intention of destroying Somalia, but that never happened," he said.

Earlier in the week, 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.

The US Navy has vowed to prevent the pirates from offloading the arms, but Robow said his movement would not mind getting hold of them in a bid to boost its campaign against soldiers from Somalia, Ethiopia and the African Union.

"The Ukrainian ship is loaded with military hardware that is very important for our holy war against the enemy of Allah and it would have changed the war in Somalia if that military shipment falls in our hands," he said.

The number of pirates currently operating off the coast of Somalia, with backing concentrated in the northern breakaway state of Puntland, is believed to be upward of 1,000. Most of them are former coastguards.

London-based think tank Chatham House said in a new report that on piracy in Somalia that the "total ransom payments for 2008 probably lie in the range of 18-30 million dollars."

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