x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

US destroyer monitoring hijacked ship off Somalia

The heavily armed battleship is sent to make sure pirates do not remove tanks, munitions and other weapons from the captive vessel.

MOGADISHU // A heavily armed US destroyer was stationed off the coast of Somalia today, making sure that pirates there do not 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 US$35 million (Dh128m) 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. 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. The Russian ship was still somewhere in the Atlantic today, the Russian navy reported.

The US Navy Lieut Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the United States' 5th Fleet, said the San Diego-based USS Howard had the Faina in sight but "cannot hear what is going on" aboard the hijacked ship. Lieut Christensen said the Navy has tried to communicate with the Faina's crew but so far has received no response. The Navy remains "deeply concerned" over the fate of 21-member crew and the ship's cargo, he said.

"What's on board is of concern to us as much as the criminal activity," he said and added that the Navy does not want the tanks and other weapons to end up "in the wrong hands". Another US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Howard was within a few thousand yards of the Faina, which was anchored a few miles off the Somalia coast. Five nations were sharing information to try to secure the swift release of the ship and its crew - Ukraine, Somalia, Russia, the United States and Britain.

Alfred Mutua, a Kenyan government spokesman, insisted his country will not negotiate with pirates or terrorists. A Russian website posted what it said was an audio recording of a telephone conversation with the Ukrainian ship's first mate. There was no way to immediately confirm the authenticity of the report on website Life.ru. 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 also nearby. Hobyo is in the central region of Mudug, south of Puntland. 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".

It was unclear exactly when the purported conversation took place. *AP