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Monday, September 29, 2008

Pirates seize Ukrainian ship with battle tanks, holds crew hostage

LONDON — Somali pirates have captured more than 30 Russian T-72 main battle tanks bound for Kenya.

The East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme said Somali pirates attacked a Ukrainian ship that was carrying Russian-origin T-72s. The maritime organization, based in Kenya, said the MBT shipment was headed for Kenya when it was hijacked on Sept. 25.

"Some say it was carrying about 38 tanks; others say 30," Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said. "The gunmen are demanding $35 million to release the MV Faina and her crew."

Mwangura said the ship was delivering 2,320 tons of military hardware. He said the shipment contained 33 T-72s as well as spare parts for armored platforms.

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The Kiev government said the ship contained 33 T-72s as well as munitions and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. A Ukrainian parliamentary committee chairman, Valery Konovalyuk, said the shipment was meant to have marked the last batch of 77 T-72s ordered by Kenya in 2007.

"The captain reported that three cutter boats with armed people approached the Faina, and then communication was cut off," the Ukraine Foreign Ministry said.

Later, Kenya said it had ordered the military hardware for a range of units.

"The government is in contact with international maritime agencies and other security partners in an endeavor to secure the ship and cargo," Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua said. "However, it should be noted that because the ship had not yet docked at Mombasa, the responsibility of the insured cargo rests with the shipper."

Industry sources said Mombasa has been used as a port for military shipments to Sudan, under an international military embargo. But the sources said representatives of Sudan were not seen at the port.

Industry sources said Russia often used Belarus and Ukraine to ship weapons to countries under international embargo. They said this included such countries as Iran and Sudan.

The seizure of the Ukrainian military cargo was believed to be a first by Somali pirates in 2008. So far, pirates based in Somalia have captured more than 30 commercial vessels, many of them around the Gulf of Aden. On Sept. 27, Egypt reported that Somali pirates released an Egyptian ship and its crew of 25.

On Sept. 27, Russia said it has sent a naval frigate, Neustrashimy, toward Somalia to stop pirates. The Russian warship was expected to stay in the Horn of Africa until the end of 2008.

"Russia's navy will send ships for temporary missions to areas made dangerous because of maritime piracy to protect Russian citizens and guarantee the safety of shipping," Russian Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said.

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