$20M Somali ransom demand for pirated ship

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – As a heavily armed U.S. destroyer patrolled nearby and planes flew overhead Sunday, a Somali pirate spokesman told The Associated Press his group was demanding a $20 million ransom to release a cargo ship loaded with Russian tanks.

The spokesman also warned the pirates would fight to the death if any country tried military action to regain the ship, and a man who claimed he was the ship’s captain reported one crew member had died.

Pirates seized the Ukrainian-operated ship Faina off the coast of Somalia on Thursday as it headed to Kenya carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks and a substantial amount of ammunition and spare parts. The ordinance was ordered by the Kenyan government.

The guided missile destroyer USS Howard was stationed off the Somali coast on Sunday, making sure the pirates did not remove the tanks, ammunition and other heavy weapons from the ship, which was anchored off the coast.

A spokesman for the U.S. 5th fleet said the Navy remained “deeply concerned” over the fate of the ship’s 21-member crew and cargo.

In a rare gesture of cooperation, the Americans appeared to be keeping an eye on the Faina until the Russian missile frigate Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, reached the area. The Russian ship was still in the Atlantic on Sunday, the Russian navy reported.

Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said he was speaking Sunday from the deck of the Faina via a satellite phone, and verified his location by handing the phone over to the ship’s captain, who also spoke with the AP. It was not possible to further confirm their identities.

“We want ransom, nothing else. We need $20 million for the safe release of the ship and the crew,” Ali said, adding “if we are attacked, we will defend ourselves until the last one of us dies.”

Five nations, Ukraine, Somalia, Russia, the United States and Britian, have been sharing information to try to secure the swift release of the ship and its crew. Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua, however, insisted his country will not negotiate with pirates or terrorists.

Ali said planes have been flying over the Faina. It was not known which country the planes belonged to. He also said others who made earlier ransom demands did not speak for the pirates holding the ship.

A man who said he was the captain of the seized ship and who identified himself as Viktor Nikolsky told the AP that a Russian crew member died Sunday because of hypertension.

“The rest of us are feeling well,” Nikolsky said, adding that he could see three ships about a mile away, including one carrying an American flag.