Foreign navy vessels close in on Somali pirates

14:38, 29 September 2008
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At least one US navy destroyer keeps watch

A US destroyer and other foreign navy ships on Monday converged on a Ukrainian vessel seized by Somali pirates last week with its cargo of combat tanks and other weapons, according to AFP.

At least one US navy ship kept watch as pirates moored the MV Faina off the notorious Indian Ocean buccaneers` lair of Harardhere with their most spectacular bounty in close to 60 successful hijackings this year.

"San Diego-based destroyer USS Howard is on station and is in visual range of MV Faina, which is anchored off the Somalia coast near the harbour city of Hobyo," the US naval forces central command said.

"My crew is actively monitoring the situation, keeping constant watch on the vessel and the waters in the immediate vicinity," the ship`s commanding officer, Curtis Goodnight, said in a statement.

The Belize-flagged ship`s crew of 21 consists of Ukrainians, Russians and Latvians but the ship`s captain said in an interview with Radio France Internationale that one seaman had died.

"We have 21 members of crew on board, one of them dead. He`s been put in the cold locker. He was sick," Viktor Nikolski said.

A spokesman for the pirates told AFP via satellite phone that the ship and its crew would be released in exchange for a ransom of 20 million dollars.

"What we are awaiting eagerly is the 20 million dollars (13.7 million euros), nothing less, nothing more," Sugule Ali said, apparently lowering the ransom from an earlier reported figure of 35 million dollars.

The ship was headed to the Kenyan port of Mombasa when it was seized. Nairobi said the shipment was part of a contract with Ukraine to update some of its military hardware.

Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Kenya chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Programme, had said that cargo may have been destined for the authorities of South Sudan, a claim denied by Nairobi.

According to the Ukrainian defence ministry, the MV Faina is carrying 33 Soviet-type T-72 tanks as well as other military supplies.

The pirates said two other foreign navy vessels were in the vicinity besides the US destroyer.

"We are not afraid of their presence, that will not make us to abandon the ship or to refrain from asking (for) the money," Ali said. "There is no shortage of food supply and all the crew members are healthy and well including ours."

There was no immediate confirmation of the two other ships` origin but a Russian patrol ship was dispatched to the area last week from the Baltic.

A Somali elder speaking to AFP from a coastal area near Harardhere confirmed that foreign navy forces were in sight and ruled out a scenario in which the pirates would offload the seized military equipment.

"The pirates made contacts with friends on the ground and they are saying that at least two warships came close to them, I believe they have no chances of escaping with the shipment," Ali Harun said.

Mwangura also said that "a US helicopter is flying overhead to prevent the pirates from offloading ammunition from the ship."

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates have carried out at least 56 successful attacks on foreign ships since the start of the year, 13 of which are still being held.

A Filipino seaman died last month when a Malaysian ship was seized off the coast of Somalia but the foreign department in Manila said Monday that the pirates had refused to return his body.

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 pirates armed to the teeth targeting anything from tourist yachts to huge merchant vessels and demanding huge ransoms.

Somalia`s northeastern tip juts out into the Indian Ocean and commands access to the Gulf of Aden, a key international maritime route leading to the Suez Canal and through which an estimated 30 percent of the world`s oil transits.

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