By Mohamed Olad Hassan, AP
MOGADISHU, Somalia — Foreign powers can use force if necessary to free a hijacked cargo ship loaded with battle tanks and heavy ammunition, Somalia’s foreign ministry declared Wednesday — increasing pressure on the Somali pirates who have demanded a US$20 million ransom.
Last week’s hijacking of the Ukrainian ship MV Faina — carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, rifles, and heavy weapons that U.S. defense officials say include rocket launchers — was the highest profile act of piracy this year in the dangerous waters off Somalia.
Mohamed Jama Ali, the ministry’s acting permanent director, said his country granted its permission to use force on the condition that foreign powers coordinate their actions with the Somali government beforehand.
“The international community has permission to fight with the pirates,” Ali told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Ali also reported that negotiations were taking place by telephone Wednesday between the ship’s Ukrainian owners and the pirates, and said no other parties were involved.
Ukrainian news agencies say the ship’s operator is Tomex Team, based in the Black Sea port of Odessa.
The U.S. Navy says it wants to keep large arms cache on the Faina out of the hands of militants linked to al-Qaida in impoverished Somalia, a key battleground in the war on terrorism. The militants who have been waging an insurgency against the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali transitional government since late 2006, fighting that has killed more than 9,000 people.
To that end, the U.S. has surrounded the Faina, anchored off the central Somali town of Hobyo, with half a dozen ships, including USS guided missile destroyer USS Howard.
A spokesman for the U.S. 5th fleet in Manama, Bahrain, the control point for the USS Howard, said Wednesday “while our ships remain on station in the area, we are not participating in negotiations between the pirates and the ship owners.”
The U.S. warships are not allowing the pirates to take any weapons off the seized ship but have allowed them to resupply with food and water. The Faina had 21 crew, mostly Ukrainians, when it was hijacked Sept. 25 but the captain has reportedly died.
American military officials and diplomats say the weapons are destined for southern Sudan, but Kenyan officials insist the weapons are bound for their country.
Moscow also has dispatched a warship to the area, saying it must protect the lives of Russians, even though there are only a few Russians among the ship’s crew.