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Somalia pirates release ship, flee with cash

Bandits off the Somali coast make off with a $3.2-million ransom as the four-month standoff over a Ukrainian vessel ends.

February 06, 2009|Associated Press

NAIROBI, KENYA — Somali pirates released a Ukrainian freighter carrying heavy arms Thursday and sped away with a $3.2-million ransom as U.S. Navy ships watched, ending a four-month standoff that focused world attention on piracy off Somalia's lawless coast.

The Navy said it couldn't seize the bandits for fear of endangering 147 seamen held hostage on other hijacked ships.

Pirate Aden Abdi Omar said by satellite phone from the central Somali town of Harardhere that more than two dozen pirates escaped on motorboats with the ransom, which had been airdropped to them a day earlier.

The seizure of the Faina, loaded with Soviet-era tanks and other heavy weapons, was one of the most brazen in a surge of pirate attacks off Somalia. Vessels from the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet quickly surrounded the cargo ship after it was seized Sept. 25 to make sure the arms on board did not get into the hands of Somali insurgents believed to have links to Al Qaeda.

The hijacking brought an unprecedented naval response. Warships from countries including the U.S., India, Britain, France, Germany, China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea have joined the anti-piracy campaign, though attacks continue. Turkey's government announced plans Thursday to send naval ships to join the mission.

On Thursday, U.S. seamen inspected the pirates' boats to ensure they weren't carrying any of the freighter's weapons cargo.

The 5th Fleet closely monitored the Faina and its 20 surviving crew members throughout the standoff after the captain died of a heart attack, and the U.S. sent medical workers to the ship Thursday once the pirates left.

Late Thursday, the Faina's new captain, Viktor Nikolsky, said his ship was under the protection of the Navy and would head to Mombasa, Kenya.

Negotiations for the release of the ship and its crew dragged on for months because of the interference of unidentified "third parties," according to a statement by the ship owner, Vadim Alperin, posted on his spokesman's website. No explanation was given.

Diplomats in the region previously have said the Faina's cargo was destined for southern Sudan, something the autonomous region has denied. Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua repeated his country's claim to the cargo Thursday.

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