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29 Sep, 2008 11:39

U.S. Navy fleet surrounds hijacked ship

Several U.S. battleships are currently surrounding the Ukrainian ship which was hijacked by Somali pirates last week. Their purpose is to prevent the unloading of the 33 tanks and other military equipment that is currently onboard.

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

The captain of a hijacked Ukrainian ship being held off the coast of Somalia has died. Conflicting reports suggest he died of heart attack or hypertension. Other crew members are reported to be in good condition.

Three Russians, seventeen Ukrainians and a Latvian are being held hostage. The pirates have initially demanded a ransom of $US35 million, reportedly lowering their demands to $US5 million. However, some reports still suggest that the pirates' demand remains around the $US20 mark.

Some diplomats in the area, more notably Kenyan representatives, consider the possibility of traditional ransom less and less possible. According to them, too much international media attention is attached to the situation on the ship for the pirates to yield to an exchange.

Mikhail Voitenko – Russian maritime expert and a leading world expert on piracy – considers the international focus to be set too strongly on the wellbeing of the tanks and not the wellbeing of the crew.

According to Voitenko, efforts should concentrate on saving the crew and the only way to do that is for the Ukrainian government to shift the focus of the international community away from the tanks and their potential effects on the Somalian political situation.

He suggests that if worse comes to worse, the rescue operation should allow Faina to go down together with the tanks and the crew should be saved.

The international environmental group ECOTERRA is concerned by the potential repercussions of the situation.

“If the falcons from the US, Russia, Ukraine and last but not least some ill-advised Somali politicians would get their way and drive the case to an end by military means, a major humanitarian and environmental disaster would be created”, ECOTERRA spokesman Dr. Hans-Juergen Duwe stated.

Questions over Ukraine's arms trade legitimacy

The Ukrainian defense minister confirmed that the tanks were on their way to Kenya in an official deal between Kiev and Nairobi. Nevertheless, some reports have suggested that the ship was in fact headed for the Sudan. Both the Ukrainian and Kenyan ministries of foreign affairs have issued reports refuting these claims.

However, the incident has raised questions in some quarters over the legitimacy of Ukraine's arms trade.

Ukrainian parliament deputy Valery Konovaluk says the number of illegal arms trade deals from Ukraine has increased in the last several years.

And for him, the details of this story do not quite add up.

“We know that there was an official contract, but strangely enough prices vary for the very same items sold to different states. We believe that large sums evade contracts and don’t reach the defense ministry to stay in somebody’s pockets. And the investigation into this incident I believe will reveal a lot – in particular if there was anything else on the vessel apart from tanks,” says Konovaluk.

The incident comes only a month after the legitimacy of Ukraine’s weapon sales to Georgia was making waves among Kiev’s political circles, during Russia’s military action in South Ossetia.

Ukrainian politicians are drawing comparisons between the events in African waters and those in the Caucasus.

Politicians in Ukraine believe that this piracy incident may in fact help the country as it’s not the first case of illegal arms trading. Ukraine’s parliament has launched several investigations into similar cases. But for now, rescuing the crew members remains a top priority.

Was the capture of Ukrainian ship pre-planned?

Mikhail Voitenko believes that the capture of the Ukrainian ship was possibly a set up and not an accident.

“The captain of the vessel should have kept to a distance of at least 250 miles from the coast,” writes Voitenko on his website dedicated to fighting piracy on the seas.

The captain of the Lehmann Timber, which was held earlier this year and was eventually released, was told by pirates that they are afraid to venture out too far into the water and by keeping a distance of at least 200 nautical miles from the coast the ship can practically avoid attack.

“The fear is being intercepted while transferring the ship from the point of capture to the place where it will be held,” says Voitenko.

According to those who have been in pirate captivity, the only chance the crew has of freeing themselves is when the ship is being led to harbour. The pirates are few and usually in a very excited state and the crew are still located in their positions around the ship.

Once the ship comes to a stop and is anchored, a large group of pirates comes aboard and forces the crew into a place where they can all be seen. This eliminates the possibility that the crew can free themselves without casualties, thus resulting in the death of part or all of the crew.