Pirates are holding a Ukrainian-owned ship loaded with Russian tanks off the East African coast, as U.S. warships and helicopters circle the vessel and trap the pirates.
No one is even quite sure where the tanks were destined for when the pirates intercepted the cargo vessel "Faina" last week.
The U.S. Navy says the 33 T-72 main battle tanks were going to an unknown buyer in Sudan. The Kenyan government has said, however, that the tanks had been purchased as part of the modernization of its armed forces.
If U.S. naval intelligence is correct, this would put the Kenyan government in the awkward position of being a possible gunrunner. Arms sales to the government in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, are legal, but are embargoed to the troubled Darfur region and, under certain circumstances, to officials in the autonomous southern part of Sudan.
The case of the "Faina" highlights the lawlessness of the sea lanes around the Horn of Africa. The British Chamber of Shipping describes the situation as "deplorable."
"Quite amazingly, a dozen ships have been hijacked and they are being held, along with their crews, being held for ransom," says the chamber's spokesman, Gavin Simmonds.
The Somali pirates who seized the "Faina" were presumably ignorant of the unusual cargo the ship is carrying. They obviously believed themselves to have been fortunate when they discovered the tanks onboard, because they began setting increasingly higher ransom demands, the most extravagant of which was $35 million to release the vessel and crew. They eventually settled on a demand of $20 million.
But they badly miscalculated. A cargo of new tanks complete with ammunition and spare parts was just too big of a prize to leave to the pirates, who might try to sell the equipment to terrorists, dictatorial African regimes, or to the factions now fighting in Somalia.
The United States immediately sent three warships to the scene to keep an eye on the "Faina." The ship is moored in a Somali bay along with two other hijacked cargo vessels. A Russian warship is also hurrying to the scene.
The "Faina" can't get away, and the pirates onboard are trapped. The tension is building. That's shown by a shoot-out among the hijackers that reportedly killed three of them. They seem to be arguing over whether they should continue to insist upon a ransom.
One thing the incident has done is to focus world attention on maritime security on the Horn of Africa. About 30 ships have been seized this year, and a dozen are still being held. The British Chamber of Shipping's spokesman Simmonds says the maritime world is "extremely disappointed" that the international community has not done more to help it.
"If you imagined 12 international airliners had been hijacked and were parked [at an airport] somewhere, while $12 million ransom money was being demanded, then there would be an absolute outcry; somehow we [at sea] don't seem to have the same political attention," Simmonds says.
Somali pirates have become bolder and bolder in recent years, preying on the hundreds of cargo ships that cross the Gulf of Aden and ply the East African coast. They are accustomed to setting demands for captured vessels and receiving ransom.
Simmonds says the merchant marine wants to see better coordination between the naval and air forces that are already in and around the area, so that the law of the sea can be effectively reestablished.
with agency reports