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26 Jan, 2009 12:03

Captive sailors call home from pirate ship

The crew of a cargo ship captured by Somali pirates four months ago have been allowed to speak to their loved ones by telephone. After the calls on Sunday, relatives of the sailors said all the men were in good health.

Pirates seized The Faina off the coast of Africa in September. The ship is loaded with a cargo of tanks and weapons, which Ukraine was reportedly selling to the Kenyan government.

Editor-in-chief of the Maritime Bulletin Sovfracht, Mike Voitenko, spoke to the families of the sailors after the calls.

“In general, the crew’s health is satisfactory,” he said. “There is water and food and all relatives say that the sailors sounded optimistic and upbeat.”

He denied previous media reports that many among the crew of 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian were ill.

It was reported at the weekend that a ransom fee had been agreed with the pirates to release the ship and the captives.

There’s growing frustration among the relatives, directed at the Ukrainian government, over why the sailors are still being detained.

The Faina was carrying more than 30 T-72 tanks and several tonnes of other weaponry in what was said to be an official arms deal between Ukraine and Kenya. But later a spokesman for the US Navy alleged part of the cargo was intended for the Darfour area of Sudan – which has a UN weapons embargo imposed on it. This could have sparked a major international scandal, crippling Kiev’s reputation as an arms exporter. The families of the detained crew believe this may well be the reason why the sailors haven’t yet been set free.

Shapovalov said: “Never before have the pirates seized a ship with such cargo. We believe that this incident is politicized and this may be the reason why negotiations have been continuing for so long.”

He says the families are worried about a cover up: “We fear freeing our children may cause problems for somebody. Someone might be interested in keeping them there not to let the truth about the cargo come out,” he said.

In the four months of the Faina stalemate, the families have tried virtually everything to get their next of kin back – from picketing the presidential administration to spreading leaflets in downtown Kiev. They’ve even collected money for the ransom. But all they’ve managed to get so far are broken promises from the authorities.

“We heard assurances from our foreign minister that our boys would be released by New Year. It didn’t happen. So we don’t know anymore who to believe,” Shapovalov said.

Mother of a detained sailor, Olga Girzheva, said: “The people who made us promises, it seems that they themselves don’t believe in what they’re telling us.”

According to the negotiating team, the ransom has been finalised and the sailors could be freed any time.

The pirates are said to be willing to talk and are no longer threatening to blow up the vessel with everyone on board.

But 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian remain in captivity.

Their relatives are planning to sue the Ukrainian president if the sailors are not released soon.

They say the last time they heard assurances that their husbands and sons were alive was at the beginning of November.