NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 6 – A cargo of Soviet battle tanks, a dead captain in the fridge, a mysterious Israeli owner, a ticking bomb on board and a parachute-borne ransom: the MV Faina’s 134-day hijacking had all the ingredients of the most extravagant spy novel.
When Somali pirates marauding the Indian Ocean hurled their grapnels on to the Ukrainian ship on September 25, they likely had no idea of the explosive nature of the shipment or of the time it would take to claim their ransom.
"There are certain networks informing the pirates of the value of a cargo but it’s generally post-incident," said a source close the MV Faina case, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity.
The hijacking got off to a dramatic start, when two days after seizing the vessel, its Russian captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, died.
Although he is believed to have died of natural causes, his body had to share space with the crew’s food supplies inside the refrigerator, itself powered by a generator working on fast dwindling fuel supplies.
News of the hijacking immediately raised questions concerning the intended recipient of the shipment, which includes 33 refurbished Soviet-era T-72 battle tanks as well as 14,000 rounds of different types of ammunition.
The Kenyan government swiftly came out claiming the weaponry was for its armed forces but several other sources later confirmed that the cargo — the fifth of its kind since 2007 — was in fact headed to South Sudan.
The purported presence of depleted uranium in some of the hardware on the Faina further turned the vessel into a hot potato. One report out of Russia even suggested the shipment may have been financed by the United States.
Then one spokesman for the group of pirates holding the ship off the Somali coastal town of Haradhere announced a ransom demand of 35 million dollars, the highest ever sought since the 2007 surge in Somali piracy.
Although the demand was later lowered ten-fold, threats emanating from Kenya, Somalia and Ukraine of military action against the pirates prompted them to show they also meant business.
"The pirates ‘prepped’ the ship and it wasn’t just an empty threat," said the source close to the case.
"It’s happened on other ships. The pirates have all kinds of mines, including heavy tank mines, and they plant them in strategic locations. Then it only takes a shot from a Kalashnikov to blow the whole thing up."
As the clock on the booby-trapped vessel ticked on, little in the way of serious negotiations between the ship-owners and the pirates was happening and desperation grew on board the ship.
"The release of the seafarers was initially very low on the agenda of the Ukrainian authorities… The real talks started after almost four months, before that it was all positioning games," the source said.
In mid-January, the vessel’s second mate and acting captain was contacted by AFP on a satellite phone and pleaded for help.
"The whole of the crew has been collected in a small room for more than three months. It’s a very hard psychological situation… Half of the crew is ill and the other half of the crew is going to go mad," he said at the time.
It had by then emerged that the ship’s real owner was Vadim Alperin, an Israeli-Ukrainian businessman.
Little is known about the mystery owner of the Faina but some reports describe him as a billionaire weapons dealer with a wide range of business interests, notably in Kenya.
The 134-day hijacking eventually ended on Thursday when some 50 pirates left the Faina with their share of a ransom of more than three million dollars, which had been dropped in cash by parachute the previous day.