Somali pirates agree deal for Ukrainian ship release

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 01 2008 08:46 AM | Updated as of Dec 01 2008 04:46 PM

MOGADISHU - Pirates guarding an arms-laden Ukrainian ship said Sunday that it would be released within days, but the fate of a Saudi oil carrier was unclear hours from a 25-million-dollar ransom demand's expiry.

Sugule Ali, spokesman for the pirates who hijacked the MV Faina in September with its cargo of battle tanks and weapons, said it was "a matter of technicality and time" before the vessel was freed.

"I can't tell you what the ransom is, but what can I say is that agreement has finally been reached," Ali told AFP from the ship.

"Within four days, we must leave and we are preparing for the safe landing of our members," he said. "We have no doubt this problem will be resolved and I hope the owners will honor the last remaining points."

The MV Faina was hijacked on September 25 on its way to Kenya, ferrying 33 Soviet-type battle tanks, anti-air systems, rocket launchers and ammunition. The ship has a crew of 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and one Latvian.

"Our members are very tired and the crew are also very tired. We all want this matter to be resolved.

"We were very lenient during the discussions because the community in the area was putting pressure on us to release the ship, especially the elders." Ali explained.

The US military has overflown the hijacked vessel several times to take pictures of the crew lined up on the bridge and verify that all were in good health.

"We were not interested in money only, but we were also trying to safeguard the lives of the crew and property on the ship," said Mohamed Ali, another member of the group that seized the vessel.

The MV Faina was anchored a few miles off the coast near the pirate lair of Harardhere, north of Mogadishu, and moved several times.

On Tuesday, Ali said they had lowered their ransom demand to three milion dollars from eight million. At first the pirates demanded 35 million dollars.

The capture of the ship triggered a controversy over its cargo's final destination.

Kenya has insisted it was the intended recipient of the arms but maritime officials and diplomatic sources in the region have said it was the government of semi-autonomous southern Sudan.

Pirates holding the Saudi super-tanker Sirius Star said Saturday they were hoping for a "favorable" response to their 25-million-dollar ransom demand ahead of a deadline which expires Sunday.

Mohammed Said, the leader of the gang that seized the Sirius Star on November 15, said negotiations to free the vessel were ongoing but did not know when they would conclude.

He was yet to comment on the fate of the ship -- the biggest ever seized by pirates -- as their ransom ultimatum drew near.

The ship's seizure has sown panic across the shipping world with some firms opting to re-route to the Cape of Good Hope, causing delays and hiking costs.

Ethiopia on Saturday accused its arch-rival Eritrea of supporting the pirates, whose rampant attacks on vessels have threatened to choke one of the world's key maritime routes.

Addis Ababa called for stronger international action against piracy off the coast of Somalia, where it deployed troops in 2006 to prop up an embattled government fighting an Islamist movement.

Despite the presence of foreign navies in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, hijackers have defied them and seized ships, the latest being the capture on Friday of a Liberia-flagged oil and chemical tanker.

Hundreds of sailors are currently being held hostage on the Somali coast, with the largest number coming from Asian countries like the Philippines.

Somalia has been plagued by relentless fighting involving a myriad of clans, Islamist groups, as well as Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces.

Asian and European fishing fleets have also systematically depleted Somalia's marine resources, one of the main justifications offered by pirates who have argued they are not seeking ransoms but imposing fines.