Cut-price deal for pirates to free ship with tank cargo

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A CUT-PRICE deal has been reached for the release by Somali pirates of a Ukrainian ship, seized in the Gulf of Aden more than two months ago, carrying a controversial cargo of 33 Russian T-72 tanks.

The arrangement to release the MV Faina and its 17-member crew came after protracted negotiations as the vessel, anchored off the Somali port of Hardhere, was surrounded by US Navy and other warships.

The pirates at first demanded $35 million for the Faina's release. It was reduced to $20 million and then to just $3 million last Tuesday. The pirates had threatened to blow up the ship and kill members of the crew. Differences among the hijackers aboard the Faina are believed to have triggered a gun battle in which three pirates were killed. The ship's captain also died early in the hijacking from a suspected heart attack.

"Negotiations have been finalised and all that remains are a few modalities before the release of the vessel, probably on Tuesday this week," said Andrew Mwangura, the programme co-ordinator of the Seafarers' Assistance Programme in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, who closely tracks the scores of pirate attacks in Somali waters.

The big question is where the Faina and its crew will head for when they are freed.

The vessel was due to dock in Mombasa, from where, said Mr Mwangura, the tanks were to be delivered to the Juba-based government of south Sudan, which, said analysts, would endanger a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan, which ended two decades of civil war in which two million people died.

An embarrassed Kenyan government, one of the guarantors of the Sudan peace accord, initially arrested Mr Mwangura for "making alarming statements to foreign media touching on the security of the country". But he was released after the Kenyan authorities were unable to produce the end-user certificate that would prove their rightful ownership of the tanks.

A spokesman for the United States Fifth Fleet, which is patrolling Somali waters, and the Khartoum-based Sudan Tribune newspaper both confirmed that the Faina's cargo of tanks and several thousand tonnes of other weaponry was destined for secret delivery to south Sudan. Kenyan military officials said that 100 T-72 tanks had already been transported through Kenya to south Sudan earlier this year.

Following the discovery of the destination of the cargo, it seems most likely that the Faina will return to the Ukrainian port of Sebastopol with it undelivered.

The Kenyan Army buys British weapons and is trained by British instructors. Soviet weaponry, especially heavy battle tanks, would not fit with its needs. Now that its secret weapons support to South Sudan has been uncovered, further deliveries would be highly embarrassing diplomatically to the Nairobi government.

Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London, said the Faina pirates will, as with others, customarily require the ransom money to be paid in cash. "It (the cash] is normally taken to Mombasa or Yemen, where it is turned over to security professionals," said Mr Middleton. "They load the money on to small boats or tugboats, sail out to the hijacked ship, pull up alongside and hand over the sacks of money."

In many cases, the cash passes through the hands of several intermediaries. "London has a lot to do with it," said a security expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

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