By Andrew Cawthorne, Reuters
NAIROBI — The U.S. Navy said on Monday it believed a hijacked Ukrainian ship it is shadowing off Somalia was carrying tanks bound for south Sudan and not for Kenya.
If proven, it would be a major embarrassment to Nairobi, which has said the 33 T-72 tanks and other armoury on board the MV Faina were intended for its military, and has denied reports of quietly funnelling weaponry into south Sudan.
A fragile peace has held in south Sudan since 2005 after more than two decades of war with the north. A major arms shipment could violate the terms of that pact unless it was specifically authorised by a north-south committee.
“It is our understanding that the cargo was intended for Sudan,” said Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, deputy spokesman for the Gulf-based Fifth Fleet which has sent destroyer USS Howard and other boats to within sight of the Faina.
His comments directly contradicted the version given by Kenya’s government spokesman Alfred Mutua.
In one of the most worrying of many hijackings this year off Somalia, the Faina was taken on Thursday en route to Kenya’s Mombasa port after coming via the Suez Canal. The pirates are holding it a few miles offshore near Hobyo town.
They are demanding US$20 million ransom for the ship, which has grenade launchers, ammunition, and 20 crew members on board, as well as the tanks, according to maritime sources.
“We will maintain a vigilant watch over the ship and remain on station while negotiations take place,” said the Fifth Fleet’s task force commander Rear Admiral Kenall Card, adding the pirates would not be allowed to offload the cargo.
The seizure off Somalia, which is engulfed in civil war, has dangerous ramifications for the turbulent east African region and the commercially strategic shipping lanes off Somalia.
The Gulf of Aden between Yemen and north Somalia is a major global sea artery used by about 20,000 vessels a year heading to and from the Suez. The Indian Ocean waters off south Somalia are also busy, including with U.N. aid shipments.
Somali pirates have taken about 30 ships this year.