MOMBASA, Kenya — You'd think that even a pirate would be nervous, what with a haul of 33 Russian-built tanks making world headlines, a captured crewmember reported dead and several U.S. military ships steaming close by and eyeing the volatile plunder.
But over a crackly satellite telephone line from the deck of a seized Ukrainian weapons ship on Tuesday, a man who identified himself as spokesman for a band of Somali pirates said coolly that the ship, its crew and some 2,300 tons of tanks, rocket launchers and explosives wouldn't be released until the ship's owner paid their startling price.
"We only want from this ship a $20 million ransom," spokesman Sugale Ali said from aboard the MV Faina. "If they give us this money, I am sure we will free everyone safely."
Perhaps Ali was feeling brazen because it's been a good year for Somalia's notorious buccaneers.
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Although the seizure of the Faina last week got the attention of the world — and the U.S. Navy, which moved warships from the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet to within sight of the remote harbor where the Faina and two other vessels are being held — pirates already had hijacked more than 50 ships this year. The seizures have netted millions in ransom payments.
The waters the pirates ply — especially the Gulf of Aden, which separates the Horn of Africa from the Middle East — have long been among the riskiest in the world. For nearly a year, the U.N. World Food Program has relied on military escorts to ship badly needed food aid to southern Somalia.
During the past two months, as piracy has spun out of control, shipping companies say that insurance costs have risen tenfold. Yet the Gulf of Aden is a vital east-west sea link, and sailing around Africa can add at least two weeks and millions of dollars in fuel and other costs, so shippers continue to take their chances.
Officials in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, where the Faina was due to offload its cargo of weapons bound for southern Sudan, said the Ukrainian shipping company that owns the vessel made contact with the pirates on Sunday and that negotiations for the ship's release were under way.
U.S. officials are worried that the Faina's cargo of Soviet-era T-72 tanks and other equipment could end up in the hands of Islamist fighters waging a growing insurgency in southern Somalia, even though they're not directly linked to the pirates. The pirates said they had no intention of off-loading the weapons or reselling them.
"We don't want tanks," Ali said. "We have our own weapons."
For now, the U.S. warships can only watch.
Experts said that a rescue mission or other military operation to retake the ship could endanger the approximately 20 crewmembers. One crewman already has died of a heart condition, maritime officials said.
"If they attack the Faina it will make things worse," said Andrew Mwangura, the director of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, which tracks Somali piracy out of Mombasa. "The only solution is to let the pirates and the ship owner talk."
Mwangura, whose organization has regular contact with the pirates, said that they were likely to reduce their ransom demand to less than $5 million given the age of the 30-year-old ship and the fact that the crew is from Ukraine, Russia and Latvia — countries not known to pay huge ransoms.
However, the presence of an undisclosed number of U.S. warships — including the guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. Howard — could be making the pirates jittery. Mwangura said that an argument among the Faina pirates Tuesday erupted into a shootout that left three of them dead.
Ali, the pirate spokesman, denied the report. Lt. Stephanie Murdock, a spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet, couldn't confirm it, either.
"Right now we're just monitoring," Murdock said. "We're watching to make sure nothing is offloaded from the ship."
The standoff reflects the absence of good options to intervene in Somalia, Africa's most failed state, which has devolved into a violent patchwork of clan-based fiefdoms that survive largely through various forms of banditry — of which piracy is just the most high-profile.
Somali officials and experts think wealthy clan leaders based throughout East Africa and the Persian Gulf control the pirate groups. The pirates themselves tend to be sandal-shod teenagers riding crude speedboats and often high on khat, a leafy stimulant.
"We've heard stories of them going after oil tankers armed with grenade launchers and we think, what's the thought going through their mind," said Guillaume Bonnissent, a risk analyst for Hiscox, a London insurer. "In that state, they don't care about anything. They go after any ship they can."
But the bleary-eyed kids belie an increasingly sophisticated operation. Officials say the pirates use "mother ships" — often vessels they've seized — to float in the open water and identify a target. They use automatic weapons to subdue ships' crews — most of which, like the crew of the Faina, aren't accompanied by security teams.
Most of the vessels seized this year have been released for ransom. But 15 ships and about 280 crewmembers are still being held, officials say.
Officials in Puntland, a semiautonomous region of northern Somalia that most pirate groups use as a base, say they're helpless. The region's annual budget is about $20 million, and by one expert's estimate, pirates can collect at least that much in ransoms in a single year.
"Even the superpowers who are patrolling Somali waters have not ever been able to stop the pirates," said Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, a senior adviser to Puntland's president. "Puntland has no chance."
The International Transport Workers' Federation, a worldwide union of seafarers, this week urged naval forces to send more ships to secure the region. But military officials with Combined Task Force 150 — a multinational naval force patrolling the region with vessels from the U.S., Canada and elsewhere — have said that the root causes of the problem are in Somalia.
"If this was happening off the U.S. or Canada, the minute that somebody started asking for a ransom you'd have police or special forces involved. They would not put up with that," said Canadian naval Commander Chris Dickinson, the commanding officer of the Ville de Quebec frigate, which has been escorting World Food Program ships to Somalia since August.
"What we're seeing here could not happen in a place with laws and order."
(McClatchy special correspondent Hamsa Omar contributed from Mogadishu, Somalia.)
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