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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

16 pirates died after handling substance on captured Iranian ship

LONDON — An Iranian ship captured by Somali pirates carried sealed containers of a powdery substance believed to be nuclear or chemical weapons agents.

Western intelligence agencies have been monitoring the capture of the Iran Deyanat, seized by Somali pirates on Aug. 21. The cargo ship, owned and operated by the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, or IRISL, contains sealed cargo thought to be linked to the death of 16 pirates.

In September 2008, IRISL came under U.S. sanctions as a company that helps Iran's nuclear and other strategic programs, Middle East Newsline reported.

Industry sources said the ship's crew of 29, about half of them Iranians and reported to have left China on July 28, would neither disclose the exact contents of the cargo nor provide the code to open the sealed containers.

In the Somali port village of Eyl, pirates blasted open one of the seven cargo units, said to contain an unidentified powdery substance.

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About 40 pirates, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, boarded the Iranian ship, owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in the Horn of Africa, about 130 kilometers southeast of Yemen. Iran Deyanat was registered to carry a sealed cargo of 42,500 tons minerals and industrial products to the Netherlands via Egypt's Suez Canal.

"That ship is unusual," Somali Regional Energy Minister Hassan Allore Osman, who has been investigating the Iranian ship, said. "It is not carrying a normal shipment."

"We cannot inspect the cargo yet," Osman said. "But we are sure that it is weapons."

"Our sources say it contains chemicals, dangerous chemicals," Andrew Mwangura, the director of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said.

Within days, the pirates sustained skin burns, lost hair and became critically ill. Soon after, at least 16 pirates died.

"We don't know exactly how many, but the information that I am getting is that some of them had died," Mwangura told the Sunday Times on Sept. 28. "There is something very wrong about that ship."

The U.S. Treasury Department said IRISL regularly falsifies shipping documents to hide the identity of end users, uses generic terms to describe shipments and operates under various covers to circumvent United Nations sanctions.

"IRISL's actions are part of a broader pattern of deception and fabrication that Iran uses to advance its nuclear and missile programs," Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said. "That conduct should give pause to any financial institution or business still choosing to deal with Iran."

Industry sources said IRISL relayed $200,000 to a Somali broker for the release of the ship. But the ship was not released as IRGC refused to send a delegation to return the ship to Iran. Reports from Somalia said the U.S. Navy has offered $7 million to examine Iran Deyanat.

"They [Iranians] told the pirates that they could not come because of the presence of the U.S. Navy," Osman said.

Both Israel and the United States have intensified efforts to identify the contents of Iran Deyanat. An industry source said the two countries were concerned that the shipment was meant for Hizbullah, which could then use the chemical weapons agents for its huge missile and rocket arsenal.

Somali officials have assessed that Iran Deyanat was meant for the Al Qaida network in Somalia. They the destination of the ship was thought to be Eritrea.

"It was heading to Eritrea to deliver small arms and chemical weapons to Somalia's Islamist insurgents," two U.S. analysts, Nick Grace and Abdiweli Ali, wrote in an analysis.


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