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30 Sep, 2008 12:40

Hijacked Ukrainian vessel ‘was breaking embargo’

The U.S. navy says ‘Faina’, the ship hijacked by Somali pirates last week was carrying weapons bound for Sudan's Darfur region, which is currently subject to an international arms embargo. While the Ukrainian company in

Several U.S. warships have kept a close watch on the vessel, on which some 20 Russian and Ukrainian crew members have been held captive for five days.

Earlier it was reported that a firefight had broken out on the Ukrainian ship ‘Faina’,. The captive freighter, currently off the coast of Africa is carrying 33 T-72 battle tanks and other military supplies reportedly on their way to Sudan via Kenya.

On Sunday, the Russian captain was said to have died of a heart attack.
There have been conflicting reports of ransom demands, the latest standing at $US 20 million.

According to Mikhail Voitenko, a world leading expert on piracy, an argument among the pirates led to a shootout, in which three of the hijackers died. It's not thought any of the crew was harmed.

Russia has also deployed a battleship to the area with the intention of rescuing the remaining crew members and ensuring the safety of Russian citizens.

Somali pirates have reportedly started unloading Faina's cargo – including over a thousand tons of ammunition. There is concern that launching an assault to stop this might endanger the hostages.

Meanwhile, reports from Mombasa and Nairobi suggest that, as well as conventional weapons, the vessel might be carrying fission core shells. If this is the case, any possible attack would be even less advisable.

Three Russians, sixteen Ukrainians and a Latvian are being held hostage. The pirates initially demanded a ransom of $US 35 million, reportedly lowering their demands to $US 5 million. However, some reports still suggest that the pirates' demand remains around the $US 20 mark.

Without captain

The clock is ticking for the detained crew members, who already lost their captain on Saturday. Russian Vladimir Kolobkov reportedly passed away due to a heart attack. Conflicting reports suggest he died of heart attack or hypertension.

His widow Elena Kolobkova says he knew about piracy in the African seas, but never feared it.

“I knew they were sailing to Kenya. He called me. Three days before there were two similar incidents there. I told him, don't go, its dangerous. But he replied – don't worry, I'll be ok”, she said.

A different direction

The ship was initially believed to be carrying tanks – one of the most popular exports from the post-soviet space – to Nairobi in an official deal between Ukraine and the African state. But according to the U.S. navy, it may have been going in a different direction.

“The shipment of 33 Russian-designed tanks, rifles and ammunition onboard the Ukrainian-operated Faina was headed for Sudan, not Kenya as previously claimed,” Deputy spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, Lt. Nathan Christensen said.

And not just Sudan, but in particularly to the Darfur region – the place that has a UN arms embargo imposed on it. The situation off the African coast has put more pressure on an already politically tense Kiev.

Should the information about Ukraine's weapon sales to Darfur prove correct, Kiev could find itself involved in a major international scandal. And while politicians are still strongly concerned with rescuing the crew members, what seems to be just a criminal incident is gradually turning into a political controversy.

Rada deputy Valeriy Konovaluk says that this may well become another case of illegal arms trading.

“The fact that US ships were dispatched for the first time to the area where a Ukrainian vessel was seized only proves our information that it could also be carrying unregistered cargo on it – probably to be sold to third parties. We're now trying to investigate it,” Konovaluk said.

Bad timing

The timing of the pirate's actions is definitely not a good one for Kiev. Not only is the country gripped by more political turmoil with the parliament standing on the brink of being dissolved again, but also legitimacy of Ukraine's weapon sales to Georgia was making waves at the highest level just a month ago – during August’s military action in South Ossetia.

So, according to Konovaluk, the piracy incident could explode a real political bomb in Ukraine.

“This case shows the involvement of the Ukranian president in it. Copies of documents signed by him leaked into the internet today and they show that he allowed the sales of modern anti-air complexes. So this to my mind is a clear indication that presidents' actions could be considered as criminal and we will start an impeachment process,” Konovaluk said.