Tensions rise over Ukrainian ship hijacked off Somalia

09:26, 29 September 2008
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It was heading to Kenya with a large supply of arms

Tensions increased Sunday over what to do about the arms-carrying cargo ship hijacked off the coast of Somalia, as the pirates vowed to fight to the death, a hostage died and Somali officials urged the American Navy to send in commandos.

According to a broadcast on the BBC Somali service, the pirates said that they could see an American destroyer nearby and several military aircraft tracking them, but that they were not afraid.

“They can’t catch us like goats,” said a man who said he was a spokesman for the pirates. “We will fight, and everyone here will die with us.”

The man said he was speaking on a satellite phone from the bridge of the hijacked Ukrainian ship, and to prove it, he handed the phone to another man who said he was the captain. The captain, a Ukrainian, then told the BBC that a Russian crew member had died from hypertension.

A band of pirates hijacked the ship on Thursday evening as it was heading to Kenya with a large supply of arms, including 33 T-72 battle tanks, grenade launchers and ammunition, all for the Kenyan military.

Somali officials said Sunday that the ship was anchored a few miles off the coast between Xarardheere and Hobyo, two notorious pirate dens where several other hijacked vessels have been taken. The pirates said they would not release the 20 crew members or the arms until they were paid $20 million in cash.

Somali officials said there might be no way to resolve the standoff other than storming the ship.

“A military operation has to be taken,” said Ahmed Said Aw-nur, minister of fisheries for the semiautonomous state of Puntland in northern Somalia.

“If the Islamists get the arms,” he said, referring to Islamist insurgents currently waging war on Somalia’s weak government, “they will cause problems for all of Somalia.”

American military officials said that they were closely watching the ship but that there were no plans to raid it.

“We’re deeply concerned about what’s aboard, as well as the safety of the crew,” said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain. “We’re hoping the arms don’t make it to shore.”

Lieutenant Christensen said the American destroyer Howard was following the hijacked ship from less than five miles away and communicating with it via bridge-to-bridge radio.

The New York Times

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