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Somali pirates push for ransom bonanza

MOGADISHU, November 25 – Somali pirates Tuesday were engaged in talks over ransoms for several vessels, including a Saudi oil tanker, an Ukrainian freighter carrying arms and their latest catch, a Yemeni cargo ship.

As the world mulled a response to the problem which has sowed panic in the shipping industry and threatens an ailing global economy, increasingly brazen pirates continued to dodge navy ships to prey on foreign vessels.

Officials from Yemen, which shares the Gulf of Aden’s shores with Somalia, said Tuesday that a Yemeni cargo ship carrying building materials was seized last week.

"The pirates are demanding a ransom of two million dollars," said one official.

Somali pirates have carried out around 100 attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean since the start of this year. They still hold 17 ships and more than 250 crew.

The pirates – a rag-tag army of an estimated 1,500 clan militiamen and former coastguards divided into four or five groups – have been in the world’s spotlight since hijacking a 330-metre Saudi super-tanker carrying two million barrels of crude oil on November 15.

Mohammed Said, the leader of the group holding the Sirius Star who announced to AFP last week that he was demanding 25 million dollars to free the ship, said Tuesday that talks were ongoing.

"The negotiations with the owners of the tanker continue. I hope they understand the situation," the pirate said.

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"We’re treating the people on the ship very courteously and this will not change unless the other side behaves aggressively," he added.

The ship is currently a few miles at sea, off the shores of the pirate lair of Harardhere, north of Mogadishu.

Islamist fighters controlling much of southern and central Somalia have vowed to root out piracy, but the pirates have beefed up their military set-up around Harardhere and warned any attack would have "disastrous" consequences.

On Tuesday, Kenyan officials said they had been conducting drills in the event of an oil spill should efforts to free the Sirius turn awry.

"The moment the ship was taken, it was a concern to us, because you know the amount of oil it is carrying," said Captain Dave Muli, a search and rescue manager with the Kenya Maritime Authority.

Environmental groups have also expressed concern over the presence of depleted uranium on the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship seized two months ago as it was heading for the Kenyan port of Mombasa with 33 tanks and other weaponry.

On Tuesday, the spokesman for the group of pirates holding the Ukrainian vessel, said the ransom demanded for its release had been lowered to three million dollars, a fraction of the 35 million requested in September.

"We are running out of time, waiting for an outcome to these protracted negotiations. The owners should immediately take this opportunity to recover their property," said Sugule Ali, reached by phone on the MV Faina.

Meanwhile, the Anatolia news agency reported that the Turkish owner of a chemicals-laden tanker seized off Yemen two weeks ago was close to a deal with the pirates on a ransom.

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So far pirates have only demanded money to release the ships they hijack.

The top US military official for Africa said Tuesday there was no evidence of ties between Al-Qaeda and the pirates.

"I do not have any evidence that pirates have links with Al-Qaeda," General William Ward, who heads the US Africa Command (Africom), told reporters during a visit to Nairobi.

"Piracy is linked to many other things, and is a reflection of a situation that continues to deteriorate onshore," Ward said, referring to fighting and lawlessness in Somalia.

Foreign powers have volunteered naval force to patrol the area, shipping companies have re-routed some of their fleets and private security outfits have offered their services to combat the new scourge.

But many experts argue the piracy problem will never be completely resolved if the root causes are not tackled.

Somalia has been plagued by relentless fighting involving a myriad of clans, Islamist groups, as well as Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces.

Asian and European fishing fleets have also systematically depleted Somalia’s marine resources, one of the main justifications offered by pirates who have argued they are not seeking ransoms but imposing fines.

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