Somali pirates mantain ransom demand for Ukrainian arms ship

11:04, 03 October 2008

A blockade around them tightened

Somali pirates holding a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and military hardware Thursday maintained their demand for a 20-million-dollar ransom as a blockade around them tightened, according to AFP.

Kenyan police meanwhile charged a maritime official who had claimed that arms shipment had been bound for Sudan and not Kenya, as both Kiev and Nairobi have said.

As warships from the United States and other navies kept close watch on the MV Faina off Somalia`s Indian Ocean coast, the pirates insisted on being paid before releasing the cargo and the 21-member crew.

"We are negotiating with the company that owns the vessel. The discussions are headed towards a positive end, but nothing has been finalised," the pirates` spokesman Sugule Ali told AFP.

"We are demanding 20 million dollars and that figure still stands."

The figure would almost double the estimated sum already paid this year to free hijacked ships.

Meanwhile, Somali Islamist militants urged the pirates to destroy the cargo and the vessel if no ransom is paid, while admitting that they would be interested in acquiring the arms.

"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 hardline Shabab movement, told AFP in an interview.

But Robow said his movement, 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.

"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 in 2006.

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 troops from Somalia, Ethiopia and the African Union in Mogadishu.

The freighter contains 33 T-72M1 and T72-M1K battle tanks, six anti-aircraft defence systems, 150 RPG-7 grenade-launchers, six missile-launchers and 14,000 rounds of 125 mm ammunition.

There are about 50 armed pirates aboard the ship mingling with the crew.

Although there had been no reports of violence against the hostages, there had been several exchanges of fire on the ship, Ukraine`s National Security and Defence Council, said in a statement. They had seen no victims of the gunfire.

"The priority should be to resolve the problem only through negotiations with the pirates without the use of force," the statement added.

Earlier in the week, the pirates said the arms were headed for Sudan, a view shared by the United States. The Ukrainian owners of the freighter and Nairobi have insisted the tanks were destined for Kenya.

Kenyan police in the port city of Mombasa charged Andrew Mwangura of the local chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Programme of "making alarming statements" for his statements to the media that the cargo was for Sudan.

Mwangura, who was also charged with possession of marijuana, pleaded not guilty to both charges. He was denied bail and remanded until October 7.

"He appears to be their (the pirates) spokesperson, especially when pushing for ransom to be paid," government spokesman Alfred Mutua told reporters.

The Ukrainian freighter has 21 Ukrainians, Russians and Latvians in the crew. The ship`s captain died of an illness on board, according to Russian media.

The number of pirates currently operating off the coast of Somalia is believed to be upward of a thousand. Most of them are former coastguards.

Piracy along Somalia`s long, unpatrolled coastline on the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden started years ago as an effort to deter foreign fishing boats depleting the country`s maritime resources.

Over the past few years, it has evolved into a well-organised industry, with well-armed pirates targeting anything from tourist yachts to huge merchant vessels and demanding huge ransoms.


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