Pirates stick to ransom demand; standoff at 7 days

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somali pirates who hijacked a ship laden with tanks and heavy weapons stared down U.S. warships and helicopters again Wednesday, making no move to withdraw their $20 million ransom demand or give up after a seven-day standoff in the Indian Ocean.

The hijacking of the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina — carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, rifles, and heavy weapons that U.S. defense officials have said included rocket launchers — was the highest-profile act of piracy in the dangerous waters off Somalia this year.

The U.S. Navy says it wants to keep the arms out of the hands of militants linked to al-Qaida in impoverished Somalia, a key battleground in the war on terrorism. To that end, it has surrounded the Faina, anchored off the central Somali town of Hobyo, with half a dozen ships, including USS guided missile destroyer USS Howard.

An official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the record, said disagreements among the pirates led to a shootout Monday night that U.S. officials believe killed three pirates.

He would not elaborate how U.S. officials knew this information, but the USS Howard, which is within 10 miles of the hijacked ship, has sophisticated weapons and monitoring equipment.

A spokesman for the pirates denied the shootout report, saying the pirates were celebrating the Islamic holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

“We are happy on the ship and we are celebrating (Eid al-Fitr),” spokesman Sugule Ali told The Associated Press by satellite telephone Tuesday. “Nothing has changed.” “We didn’t dispute over a single thing, let alone have a shootout,” Ali said.

On Wednesday, his phone rang and rang but no one picked it up. A spokesman for the U.S. 5th fleet in Manama, Bahrain, the control point for the USS Howard, said they had no new developments on the standoff Wednesday.

Piracy is a lucrative criminal racket in the region, bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year. There have been 24 reported attacks in Somalia this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

U.S. officials said 40-50 pirates were involved in the hijacking, but only about 30 were on the ship itself.

U.S. Navy officials from the 5th Fleet said they have allowed the pirates to resupply the ship with food and water, but not to unload any of its military cargo.

Ukrainian news agencies have said the ship’s operator is Tomex Team, based in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

The U.S. fears the armaments may end up with the militants who have been waging an insurgency against the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali transitional government since late 2006, when the Islamic fighters were driven out after six months in power. More than 9,000 people have been killed in the Iraq-style insurgency.

American military officials and diplomats say the weapons are destined for southern Sudan, but Kenyan officials insist the weapons are bound for their country.

The Faina had a crew of 21, mostly Ukrainians, but a man who has been identified as the first mate, Vladimir Nikolsky, told The Associated Press on Sunday that one man died of hypertension. Russian media said it was the freighter’s captain, Vladimir Kolobkov.

In a telephone conversation posted on the Web site Life.ru and apparently initiated by the news site, a man identifying himself as Nikolsky made what sounded like a coded call for help, repeating a Russian word for “seals” three times — an apparent reference to a possible amphibious rescue.

The Russian guided missile frigate Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, is traveling to the area, but was not expected for several days. Russia has used force in the past to end several hostage situations — sometimes disastrously, as in the 2004 storming of a school in Beslan, which resulted in 333 deaths, nearly half of them children.

Most pirate attacks occur in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, north of Somalia. But recently pirates have been targeting Indian Ocean waters off eastern Somalia.

Some 62 ships have been attacked in the notorious African waters this year. A total of 26 ships were hijacked, and 12 remain in the hands of the pirates along with more than 200 crew members.

International warships patrol the area and have created a special security corridor under a U.S.-led initiative, but attacks have not abated.

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