Negotiations for the release of the Ukrainian ship which was hijacked off the Somali coast last month with military hardware are on course and may be concluded in the next few days, a regional maritime official said on Thursday, Xinhua reported.

    Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers` Assistance Program said talks have reached an advantaged stage that may lead to the release of the MV Faina which was seized on Sept. 25 with 33 T-72 tanks.

    "Talks are going on well and within the next four or five days, you may hear good news concerning the MV Faina," Mwangura told Xinhua by telephone.

    He said the pirates are in constant touch with security forces in foreign naval ships shadowing the Faina and had even assured them of the security of the ship`s crew.

    "The foreign forces have seen them and assured that they are fine," he said, adding that the captain`s body remained in the cold locker since his death soon after last month`s hijacking.

    Meanwhile, the Kenyan government said it was still hoping that the hijacked ship would be released and "we will get our cargo".

    Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua told journalists in Nairobi that the reason why the international naval ships had not moved in was to secure the safety of the crew members.

    Mutua who has maintained that the east African nation will not pay ransom as demanded by the pirates said plans were still underway to raid the vessel but top priority of the mission is the lives of the crew on board.

    "The fact that the pirates have not been attacked is because there are a number of things that are evaluated," said Mutua, adding that different foreign troops had surrounded the ship.

    Mutua also confirmed that Kenyan ambassador to Sudan had recorded a statement with security officials in Khartoum over allegations that the Ukrainian ship with military cargo was destined for the south of that country.

    "He was never summoned by the foreign ministry there but was invited to meet members of the Sudanese intelligence who wanted him to clarify on media reports on the ship," Mutua told journalists in Nairobi.

    Kenya has insisted that the military cargo in the ship belongs to its military although there has contradicting reports that this could have destined for southern Sudan.

    "Yes, our ambassador was invited to meet the Sudanese intelligence to explain media reports that had said that the shipment was meant for southern Sudan," said Mutua.

    Sudan reportedly summoned the Kenyan and Ethiopian ambassadors last week to protest against what it said were illegal shipments of arms to the south.

    The military ware including 33 T-72 tanks and on the MV Faina, was allegedly reported to be destined for southern Sudan through Kenya.

    The Ukrainian vessel issue has soured the relations between the two countries. According to local reports, top Sudanese government officials have said they will not attend an Inter-Government Authority on Development meeting slated for Kenya next week, which is seen as an escalation of the controversy on the hijacked Ukrainian ship.

    Government sources in Khartoum told a Kenyan newspaper, Daily Nation, that neither President Omar al-Bashir, Vice-President Ali Osman Taha nor the Minister for Foreign Affairs Deng Alor will attend the October 26-29 meeting.

    Instead Sudan is to be represented at the crucial talks by its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ahmed bin Abdullah al Mahmoud, an equivalent of Kenya`s assistant minister for Foreign Affairs.

    The regional meetings are normally preceded by technical committee meetings, followed by that of foreign affairs ministers and finally Head of State or Governments Summit. The Sudan representative is to attend the foreign affairs ministers meeting.

    Next week`s regional summit will discuss security situation in Somalia and pressurize forces within the Somalia transitional federal government to end their squabbles and work together.

    The plan by top Sudanese officials to skip the meeting came hot on heels of a move by the country`s Energy Minister Zubain Mohamed Salih to cancel his visit to Kenya to finalize an oil purchase deal.

    The Sudan`s minister was to be in Nairobi this week to sign an agreement with his Kenyan counterpart, Kiraitu Murungi that would have seen Kenya start importing oil at a cheaper rate from Sudan. Kenya had already signed a memorandum of understanding with Sudan over the purchase.

Xinhua