MOGADISHU Somali pirates holding a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks reiterated their demands for a $20 million ransom on Tuesday and denied three of their number had died in a shootout.
A maritime group monitoring the situation had earlier said three pirates were killed in a shootout between rival gunmen on the MV Faina, seized six days ago in the most high-profile of a wave of hijackings off lawless Somalia this year.
"We want $20 million ransom from the ship and we are 53 Somalis," said Sugule, the spokesman of the pirates onboard the Ukrainian ship, which is being shadowed by U.S. navy vessels.
"I will not talk about mediators or negotiation because we are at risk. I will not name where we are particularly but we are on the coast of Somalia," he told Reuters, adding the pirates would stay on board until their demands were met.
The capture of the MV Faina has sparked controversy over the destination of its cargo and thrown a spotlight on rampant piracy in one of the world's busiest shipping areas connecting Europe to Asia and the Middle East.
The East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, monitoring the hijacking via relatives of the crew and contacts with pirates, had earlier said that factions had argued over whether to free the cargo and crew.
But the pirates denied there had been any fighting.
"There are two American warships near us but we have neither fought nor communicated with them," Sugule said.
Two other pirates and a regional leader had earlier told Reuters there had been no shootout. Sugule said one of the 21 crew members had died due to illness.
The U.S. navy has said the ship, which was heading for Kenya's Mombasa port, was carrying T-72 tanks, grenade-launchers and ammunition ultimately bound for south Sudan via Kenya.
Kenya says the weaponry was for its own military.
Taking advantage of chaos on shore, where an Islamist-led insurgency has raged for nearly two years, Somali pirates have seized more than 30 ships this year and attacked many more.
Most attacks have been in the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and north Somalia, a major global sea artery used by about 20,000 vessels a year heading to and from the Suez Canal. The pirates have also struck in the busy Indian Ocean waters off south Somalia.
With U.S. and French military bases in the area, many are unhappy with the lack of international action.
"If civil aircraft were being hijacked on a daily basis, the response of governments would be very different," top shipping trade bodies and transport unions said in a joint statement.
"Yet ships, which are the lifeblood of the global economy, are seemingly out of sight and out of mind."
As well as using ransom money to build new homes and take new wives, the increasingly rich pirates have bought speedboats, satellite phones and other equipment to aid their trade.
"There is a striking similarity between the actions of these unscrupulous pirates and the activity in 'blood diamonds' in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the civil wars in these countries," said U.N. envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah.
"No ship, big or small, civil or military, is spared. With the seizure of the Ukrainian ship, a new line has been crossed."
U.S. analyst J. Peter Pham, of Madison University, called for a united international naval response, more attention to solving Somalia's civil conflict, and better protection equipment on board commercial vessels.
"Many have done little aside from being prepared to pay ransoms which only perpetuate the cycle of violence," he wrote in a new report on the Somali piracy phenomenon.
(Additional reporting by Stefano Ambrogi in London, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi and Abdiqani Hassan in Bosasso; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)