US destroyer monitoring hijacked ship off Somalia

A heavily armed US destroyer was stationed off the coast of Somalia today, making sure that pirates there don’t remove tanks, ammunition and other heavy weapons from a hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship.

A man claiming to be a spokesman for the pirates says they want $35m to free the cargo ship Faina and warned of dire consequences if any military action was taken to try to free the ship.

Pirates seized the Ukrainian-operated ship on Thursday as it travelled to Kenya with a load of 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks and a substantial quantity of ammunition and spare parts ordered by the Kenyan government.

US officials said the American warship was concerned about the large amount of weapons on the hijacked freighter. In a rare gesture of co-operation, the Americans appeared to be keeping an eye on the Faina until the Russian missile frigate Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, reaches the area.

Pirate attacks worldwide have surged this year and Africa remains the world’s top piracy hotspot, with 24 reported attacks in Somalia and 18 in Nigeria this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting centre.

A surge of audacious maritime attacks have taken place recently off the coast of Somalia, a war-torn country without a functioning government since 1991.

A US defence official said the destroyer USS Howard was within a few thousand yards of the Faina, which is anchored a few miles off the Somalia coast.

The destroyer is watching to make sure the pirates do not try to remove anything, the official added. He did not say what the US reaction would be if they did.

The USS Howard’s website says it has surface-to-air missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles, anti-submarine rockets, torpedoes, and a five-inch rapid-fire deck gun.

Five nations were sharing information to try to secure the swift release of the ship and its crew – Ukraine, Somalia, Russia, the US and Britain. Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua, however, insisted his country does not negotiate with pirates or terrorists.

A man called The Associated Press in Somalia by telephone on Saturday and claimed to be a spokesman for the pirates.

“We want the Kenyan government to negotiate with us about a 35 million dollar ransom we want for the release of the ship and the cargo,” said the man, who identified himself as Ali Yare Abdulkadir. “If not, we will do what we can and offload the small arms and take them away.”

Abdulkadir would not reveal his whereabouts, but residents in the north-eastern Somali region of Puntland said he did represent the pirates. He also warned against any attempt to storm the ship.

“Any one who tries it will be responsible for the consequences,” Abdulkadir said.

A Russian website posted what it said was an audio recording of a telephone conversation with the Ukrainian ship’s first mate.

On the recording, a man who identified himself as first mate Viktor Nikolsky said the hijackers were asking for a ransom but he did not know how much.

Mr Nikolsky said the ship was anchored near the Somali town of Hobyo and that two other apparently hijacked ships were nearby. Hobyo is in the central region of Mudug, south of Puntland.

Mr Nikolsky said there were 35 people on the ship – 21 of them crew – and most were being held in a single overheated room. Nobody was injured, but the captain was suffering from heatstroke and his condition was “not so good,” he said.

It was unclear exactly when the purported conversation took place.

An international anti-piracy group on Saturday announced yet another hijacking.

A Greek tanker with a crew of 19 carrying refined petroleum from Europe to the Middle East was ambushed on Friday in the Gulf of Aden, said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting centre based in Malaysia.

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