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13 Feb, 2009 09:19

Faina freed, but questions remain

The crew of the Ukrainian ship Faina that had been hijacked by Somali pirates for more than four months has landed in Kiev airport. President Viktor Yushchenko has greeted the crew personally.

The ship has been released after a $US 3.2 million ransom was parachuted onto its decks last week.

The Belize-flagged Faina then set sail on Saturday for Kenya with a US military escort and US Navy commandos on board to provide security.

Overall, the pirates, who initially demanded a $US 35 million ransom, had to lower their ambitions though they controlled the vessel from September 25, 2008 to February 5, 2009.

On Thursday, February 12 Faina docked in Mombasa.

The only casualty a Russian

The crew was greeted at the port by Ukrainian officials and then spoke briefly with journalists before being taken away for a medical screening.

“There were a lot of difficulties, negotiations about our liberation and about the liberation of the vessel,” said acting captain Viktor Nikolsky who, like other crew members, is set to finally return home Friday morning.

Nikolsky took over the ship after Faina’s captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, died following a heart attack just days after his ship’s hijacking.

While the cause of his death has yet to be confirmed, the fate of Kolobkov’s body has not been made clear either.

Following Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov’s request, his Ukrainian counterpart, Vladimir Ogryzko, promised to ensure that Ukrainian officials bring the body of Faina’s late captain to Kiev, should they get permission from Kenyan authorities.

The Russian ambassador in Nairobi, Valery Yegoshkin, is working on issuing a death certificate and acquiring permission at this moment.

The rest of the crew, 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian, are said to be in good health. However, the latter statement probably needs a confirmation following the results of medical screenings, especially following unconfirmed reports of an attempt to regain the hijacked ship by its crew.

Cargo in place, but for whom?

Its valuable and deadly cargo – 33 T-72 tanks, grenade launchers and a large amount of ammunition – is still aboard ship, according to Ukrainian officials.

Andriy Honcharuk, deputy head of the Ukrainian Presidential Administration and a member of the delegation welcoming the Faina crew at the Kenyan port of Mombassa, has denied allegations that some of Faina's military cargo disappeared on the way to Kenya.

“All armaments and military hardware are in place,” he told Interfax on Thursday.

The Somali pirates clearly prefer to buy their own arms from the money received as a ransom.

These tanks and ammunition – as the Ukrainians claim– were destined for the Kenyan military. On Friday, according to a spokesman for the Kenyan government, the cargo will be unloaded and, in the near future, handed to the Kenyan armed forces.

Meanwhile, some experts are convinced that these weapons are bound to reach Sudan, which was one of the ‘hot spots’ in the 2008 and is still caught in the fifth year of civil instability (active military action halted three years ago).

The Russian press hinted that the battle tanks on the Faina may have been paid for by the U.S. itself and intended for use by militant groups in South Sudan.

Also, as the International Crime Court having issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, the country is subject to an international arms embargo.

A parliamentary commission in Ukraine claims the country’s President, Viktor Yushchenko, is involved in illegal arms sales and oil-rich Sudan remains a likely arms recipient despite the embargo.

The BBC has published an alleged freight manifest from Faina, with a contract number containing MOD/GOSS initials that could mean Ministry of Defense/Government of South Sudan.

Though the Kenyan government has dismissed these claims, citing a minor division of Kenyan Defense Ministry with a similar acronym, the real destination of Faina’s cargo is still in question.

The Horn of troubles

Talking to RT in December, Somalia’s Ambassador to Russia, Mohammed Mahmud Handule repeated that the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea are parts of a massive maritime transport route through which most oil from Arab countries, like Iran, Iraq, as well as other goods, are shipped.

He also noted that the presence of pirates near the Horn of Africa is an excellent cover for many illegal activities.

“It’s convenient to write everything off to the pirates’ presence”, Handule believes, adding, “the phenomenon of piracy in Somalia is unique in itself – it is artificially created. 'Somali pirates' are just hired for the job and get their salaries.”

According to East African Seafarer’s Assistance Program, the number of pirates in Somalia today is around 1,100, up ten-fold from the 2005 figure. According to the UN, Somali pirates carried out at least 120 attacks on ships in 2008, resulting in an overall yield of around $150 million.

Some 20 warships from the navies of at least 10 countries, including Russian warships such as the Neustrashimy, are involved in anti-piracy operations off Somalia. The country, ravaged by 20 years of civil war, has no functioning government and is no position to combat piracy on its own.

Ruben Zarbabyan, RT