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Pirates attack; Russians rush to Somalia

September 27, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — A Russian warship entered Somalia's volatile waters early today after pirates seized a Ukrainian cargo vessel loaded with battle tanks and ammunition headed for Kenya, officials said.

The pirates' capture of the Ukrainian vessel, about 300 miles north of Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, is one of the most audacious and potentially risky in recent memory. Over the years, Somalian pirates have launched regular attacks against private yachts, fishing vessels and humanitarian shipments around the lawless Horn of Africa nation.

It was unclear whether the pirates realized that the ship, with 21 crew members, held military hardware.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Yury Yekhanurov said the hijacked vessel Faina was carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks and a substantial quantity of ammunition and spare parts. He said the tanks were sold to Kenya in accordance with international law.

The pirates may have been hoping to resell the weapons on the black market, said Andrew Mwangura, program coordinator of the Seafarers Assistance Program, a private merchant marines organization in Kenya.

"They really hit the jackpot," Mwangura said.

Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo reportedly said that the missile frigate Neustrashimy left the Baltic Sea port of Baltiisk a day before the hijacking to cooperate with other unspecified countries in anti-piracy efforts. The ship was then ordered directly to the Somalian coast after Thursday's attack.

According to the British-based Jane's Information Group, the Neustrashimy is armed with surface-to-air missiles, 100-millimeter guns and anti-submarine torpedoes.

So far no ransom demand has been announced. Hijackings typically result in demands of $1 million, though Mwangura predicted this one would top $2 million.

A U.S. warship was also reportedly tracking the situation but had taken no action to intervene, Pentagon officials said.

With the involvement of the Russian warship, some fear commandos will attempt to raid the cargo ship in an attempt to free the crew and secure the weapons.

"If they rush the ship, the pirates will use the crew as human shields," Mwangura said. He estimated that as many as 100 pirates were in control of the boat.

The crew members are three Russians, 17 Ukrainians and one person whose nationality could not be determined.

This year alone, 56 vessels have been attacked in the region, including 26 that have been hijacked, mostly in the Gulf of Aden.

The banditry has plagued shipping routes to the Red Sea and interfered with humanitarian aid headed for Somalia, which has lacked a functioning government since 1991. After repeated attacks, staff of the United Nations' World Food Program now travel with armed protection by warships from countries such as France and Canada.

Earlier this year, France sent commandos to rescue French yachts seized off the coast. Last year, the U.S. Navy helped free a North Korea-owned vessel.

A multinational task force of naval vessels says it has deterred a dozen attacks since it began patrolling the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden in August.

But in a statement issued this week, U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney of the Combined Maritime Forces warned the shipping industry not to rely on the world's navies to protect their vessels, urging them to provide their own private security.

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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