September 30, 2008

U.S. Navy Tightens Guard on Hijacked Arms Ship

By Jeffrey Gettleman

The American military deployed more warships Monday to tighten a naval noose around the arms-laded freighter hijacked by pirates and thwart any possible escape in a standoff near the craggy Somalia coastline.

Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a U.S. Navy spokesman, said that "several destroyers and missile cruisers" had been assigned to those already dispatched to seal the pirated vessel off. He would not specify the exact number of warships or what they would do if the pirates refused to surrender.

"Our intent is for the ship not to offload any of its cargo," he said, referring to the 33 battle tanks and large supply of grenade launchers and ammunition now in the hands of a band of pirates.

The ship, the Faina, operated by a Ukrainian arms supplier, was hijacked Thursday in Somalia's pirate-infested waters. The American military, among others, fears the pirates could sell the cargo to Islamist insurgents battling Somalia's weak government.

Meanwhile, the controversy over where exactly the tanks were going has heated up again.

Two Western diplomats in Nairobi, a maritime official and the pirates themselves said the arms were headed for Sudan or other neighboring countries, not Kenya, as the Kenya government has repeatedly claimed.

One of the diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there may have been a secret arms deal in which Kenya would be a transit point for the weapons to be taken by train from the port of Mombasa and then out of the country.

"I can tell you these tanks were not for Kenya," the diplomat said.

Kenya has denied this. On Monday, a government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, said, "We buy weapons all the time. I don't see what the big deal is." He also characterized the pirates, in a statement, as "a ragtag terrorism unit."

Ukrainian tanks, though, are a relative anomaly in Kenya, which has been a close ally of the United States and Britain for decades and has been equipped with Western-made weapons.

Mutua acknowledged this, saying most of Kenya's tanks were "old British tanks." But, he added, the Ukrainian tanks were cheaper. "We choose who we buy from," he said. "And we buy equipment from all over the world." Kenya recently bought several Chinese-made trucks to transport troops.

The first news reports Friday regarding the hijacked ship said the arms were headed for south Sudan, which is an autonomous region of Sudan that fought a long separatist war against the northern Sudanese government. There are currently American sanctions and a United Nations arms embargo against Sudan, though U.S. officials said it may not be illegal for Kenya to provide tanks to south Sudan.

UN officials said that in the past few years several large arms shipments have passed through Kenya en route to south Sudan. Often, the weapons are moved across the border at night.

Andrew Mwangura, program coordinator for the Seafarers' Assistance Program in Kenya, which tracks pirate attacks, called the Ukrainian ship "a tricky vessel."

"The tanks were for Sudan and the Kenya government doesn't want to admit it because of the embargo," he said.

Mwangura said among the weapons aboard the hijacked ship was ammunition made from depleted uranium, which is dangerous to handle.

The pirates have said they are not interested in the cargo and will release it and the 20 crew members if they are paid a ransom of $20 million in cash. Already one crew member has died, which the pirates have attributed to natural causes.

Somalia's waters are considered the most dangerous in the world. More than 50 ships, from sailboats to oil tankers, have been attacked this year. Many are still being held for ransom.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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