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Somali Pirates See Ukrainian Tank Ship Free Within Days

Pirates stand guard over the crew of the hijacked Ukrainian merchant ship "MV Faina" in November.

Pirates stand guard over the crew of the hijacked Ukrainian merchant ship "MV Faina" in November.

MOGADISHU (Reuters) -- Somali pirates holding a Ukrainian ship with 33 tanks on board have said they expect it to be released within days for a $3 million ransom.

The "MV Faina" -- the highest-profile of a dozen ships being held off Somalia -- was captured in September with its 20-man crew and a cargo of Soviet-era T-72 tanks, plus other weapons.

"The negotiations between us and the owners of the ship are in the final phase. We are about to agree $3 million, then we will release the ship, probably after four days," pirate Aden Gelle told Reuters from Haradheere port.

"We are hopeful of wrapping up the affair of this ship as soon as possible," added Gelle, who said he had come ashore from the "Faina" for a rest.

The seizure of the "Faina" drew international attention, not only for its dramatic military cargo, but for a regional row over the destination of the tanks.

Kenya said it had bought them for its army, but foreign diplomats said the arms were bound for south Sudan -- a potential embarrassment to Nairobi which brokered a peace pact there.

Fahran Muse, a self-styled spokesman for the gang holding the "Faina," also said talks were at an advanced stage.

"The negotiations are going on now and may be completed within several days, probably four," he said. "The owners of the ship make good contacts with us every day."

Somali pirates have captured three boats so far in 2009, after taking a record 42 last year in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes. Anarchy and an Islamist insurgency onshore have fueled the upsurge of piracy.

In an unprecedented international response, more than 20 warships from 14 nations are patrolling to try and stop the gangs. Piracy has raised insurance costs and prompted some ship owners to go round South Africa instead of via the Suez Canal.