September 26, 2008 / 12:40 PM / 11 years ago

Somali pirates grab Ukrainain ship loaded with tanks

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somali pirates have seized a Ukrainian ship carrying more than 30 tanks to Kenya and Russia said Friday it was sending a warship to combat piracy in the region.

The U.N. World Food Program said Canada had extended its naval escorts of food aid shipments for another month.

Pirates have captured more than 30 vessels off Somalia this year, making its waters the most dangerous in the world and threatening a globally important shipping lane between Europe and Asia. The gangs seek, and often receive, large ransoms.

The Mombasa-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program said the Ukrainian ship, sailing under a Belize flag, was seized Thursday.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Yuri Yekhanurov, quoted by the news agency Interfax Ukraine, said its cargo included 33 T-72 tanks being sold to Kenya under a legal contract.

He told reporters in Kiev that the cargo included grenade launchers and ammunition.

“All this is being sold in full accordance with Ukrainian legislation,” Yekhanurov was quoted as saying.

Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua confirmed that the military equipment was destined for Kenya.

“The cargo in the ship includes military hardware such as tanks and an assortment of spare parts for use by different branches of the Kenyan military,” he said in a statement.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States was monitoring the situation and considering its options in response to the seizure.

“The nature of the cargo is something that has us taking a particular interest in this,” Whitman said.

The cargo was a significant seizure in Somalia, where Islamist insurgents have been fighting the government and its Ethiopian military ally for nearly two years.

Although under a U.N. arms embargo, the Horn of Africa country is awash with arms.

RUSSIAN WARSHIP

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry identified the vessel as the Faina and said 17 of 21 crew members, including the captain, were believed to be Ukrainian. The others were from Russia and Latvia.

Russia’s navy said it had sent a warship to Somalia’s coast and would conduct regular anti-piracy patrols in the area.

Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo told the Vesti-24 television station a Russian warship left its base on the Baltic Sea on September 24.

The announcement underlined the ambition of Russia’s navy, which some observers say is being used by the Kremlin to project its renewed power. Russian ships are also sailing to Venezuela for the first major manoeuvres in the area since the Cold War.

Many ships have been seized in the Gulf of Aden, a sea artery used by about 20,000 vessels a year heading to and from the Suez Canal. The shipping lane carries almost one-tenth of the world’s shipping by tonnage.

Pirates released a Japanese ship and its 21-member crew on Friday after a $2 million ransom was paid three months after the vessel was captured, a regional official said.

“We understand that the Japanese ship, MV Stella Maris which had been hijacked on July 20, was released today after $2 million was paid,” Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf, assistant minister for fisheries in Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland, told Reuters.

Pirates are holding about a dozen vessels and more than 200 crew members. Their business has flourished as the Islamist-led insurgency on shore has deepened. Somalia has been in civil conflict since 1991.

The U.N. food agency welcomed a four-week extension of escorts by the Canadian navy, which will allow it to continue delivering emergency rations to about 2.4 million people in Somalia.

“It is a great relief to us,” WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella said in Geneva. “We continue to look for naval escorts beyond October 23.”

Canada has provided escorts since mid-August and had been due to halt its service Saturday. France, Denmark, and the Netherlands supplied escorts previously.

(Additional reporting by Ron Popeski in Kiev, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; David Morgan in Washington: Editing by Angus MacSwan)

For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/

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