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Warships begin patrol off Somalia

NATO flotilla aims to keep pirates at bay in Horn of Africa waters.

October 28, 2008|The Associated Press

NAIROBI, KENYA — NATO warships safely escorted a cargo vessel through pirate- infested waters off Somalia for the first time Monday, and hijackers holding an arms-laden Ukrainian vessel said its operators do not want to negotiate for the weapons.

One of the seven North Atlantic Treaty Organization ships that arrived in the region over the weekend guarded a vessel carrying African Union peacekeeping troops to Somalia. The NATO flotilla's mission is to conduct anti-piracy patrols and guard World Food Program aid shipments.

"The operation is moving well," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels.

Somalia, caught up in an Islamic insurgency, has not had a functioning government since 1991. It has no navy or coast guard and cannot patrol its coastline, which includes the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest and most dangerous shipping lanes.

The case of the arms-laden Ukrainian cargo ship Faina, hijacked Sept. 25 with a cargo of 33 battle tanks and heavy weaponry, focused international attention on the pirate menace off the Horn of Africa. Ships of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet have surrounded the Faina for a month to ensure that the cargo does not get into the hands of militants.

The pirates holding the Faina said Monday that its operator wants to negotiate only for the release of the vessel and crew of 20 -- not the cargo.

Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said they received a fax Friday from Viktor Murenko, the head of ship operator Tomex Team, saying Kenya had declined to pay any ransom for the cargo it claims.

The letter said the pirates had "liberty to destroy or throw the weapons to the sea if they deemed that fit," Ali said via satellite phone from the ship.

In Russia, a spokesman for ship owner Vadim Alperin said such a thing was physically impossible as there was no way to unload or destroy the cargo with U.S. forces near the ship.

Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula repeated that the government would not pay any ransom, and said Tomex Team was responsible for the cargo until it was delivered.

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