By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
CAIRO, Sept. 29 -- The U.S. Navy on Monday strengthened its force of warships standing watch over a hijacked Ukrainian-operated vessel off Somalia, intent on ensuring that the pirates holding the vessel do not unload its cargo of 33 Soviet-designed T-72 tanks and other arms, a U.S. Navy spokesman said.
The United States has deployed "several" warships off Somalia, Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, said by telephone from Bahrain. The Navy initially assigned only the USS Howard, a guided-missile destroyer, to trail the Faina after Somali pirates hijacked it Thursday.
The hijacked ship was within a few miles of the Somali port of Hobyo, and within sight of the American sailors, he said. The U.S. crews would maintain "a vigilant, visual watch," Christensen said. "We're deeply concerned about the cargo, and we don't want it to go into the wrong hands," he said.
Kenya's government has said the tanks and arms were meant for its military.
The pirates and international experts on East Africa assert the weapons were bound for southern Sudan, which is largely autonomous from Sudan's Khartoum-based government. Sudan is under a U.S. and U.N. arms embargo; it is not clear if the ban would apply to southern Sudan.
Andrew Mwangura, a director of the Kenya-based Seafarers Assistance Program, said shipping documents and other sources indicate that in the past two years, Ukrainian arms dealers have made four shipments of tanks and heavy weapons to southern Sudan via Kenya. Mwangura's organization has contacts among shippers and Somali clans, and has provided accurate information in the course of the hijacking.
Radio France Internationale said it had reached the Somali pirates aboard the Faina by satellite telephone Monday, and aired a recording of a man pledging to fight back if the Americans or anyone else attacked.
"Ships and troops have surrounded us," said a man identified by RFI as pirate Sugule Ali. He spoke in Somali.
"There's a lot of unusual movement surrounding us, and planes are flying overhead," the man said. "I warn anyone who might be tempted by any military operation or use of force, if we're attacked, we'll defend ourselves, until the last one of us dies."
The man repeated a demand for $20 million in ransom for the release of the ship and the crew. He did not say whether the pirates intended to keep the arms, apparently discovered by the hijackers only after they took control of the vessel.
The crew members number 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and one person described as either Latvian or Lithuanian.
One crew member, Viktor Nikolsky, spoke to Kenyan officials over the weekend and told them the Faina's captain had died of "hypertension," the independent Russian news Web site Gazeta.ru reported.
Ukrainian authorities said they had no confirmation of the death.
Russia, which had already pledged to deploy its navy to combat increased hijackings by Somali pirates, said Friday it would send a Russian warship to deal with the hijacked Ukranian vessel.
"In a situation in which the lives of Russian citizens could be in danger, the navy reserves the right to act on its own," Russian navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said last week.
The Russian military said the warship was in the Baltic Sea at the time of its deployment order, meaning it would take days to reach the scene. Christensen said that delay helped prompt the U.S. Navy to deploy its own ships.
Somali pirates have launched what the International Maritime Bureau calls the greatest surge of piracy in modern times. The pirates have attacked more than 60 ships this year off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. The Gulf of Aden leads to the Suez Canal and is the main shipping route from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.
The Somali pirates typically demand more than $1 million per vessel in ransom. Negotiations between pirates and shipowners have taken months at times, with the hijacked crews held captive in Somalia until an agreement is reached.
Correspondents Philip P. Pan in Moscow and Stephanie McCrummen in Washington contributed to this report.