February 13, 2009 / 2:46 PM / 10 years ago

Ukraine sailors home after 5 months held by pirates

By Mykhailo Yelchev

KIEV, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Sailors held captive by Somali pirates for five months returned home on Friday as Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko vowed to try to stamp out hijackings on the high seas.

Twenty crew members of the MV Faina trooped down a gangway at Kiev’s international airport to be greeted by the president and overjoyed relatives who whisked them away quickly. The crew included 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian.

At least one crew member was nursing a broken arm and another was limping badly. Most were wearing military-style camouflage fatigues.

"We have decided to take part in an international initiative within the EU’s programme to fight piracy," Yushchenko told the gathering.

"Talks are now proceeding on our participation. But we must now pay several million dollars so that our ships may be present there to protect ships under a Ukrainian flag."

In one of the highest-profile seizures of recent times, pirates captured the Faina in September with its crew and a cargo of 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks plus other weapons.

The Faina’s Russian captain died in the first days of the hijacking. His body was taken off the ship at the Kenyan port of Mombasa on Thursday, where it docked after the pirates released the vessel after receiving a ransom.

Maritime sources and members of the gang said the ship’s owners paid the pirates $3.2 million.

Crew member Alexander Presukha, speaking before boarding the plane in Mombasa, said the psychological effects of their captivity were only now becoming apparent.

"It’s more difficult psychologically now than when the pirates were on board the ship," Presukha told reporters. "It’s only now you understand fully what happened."

A man identified by Ukraine’s Fifth Channel Television as an owner of the vessel, Vadim Alperin, said negotiations with the pirates had been long and difficult.

"Pirates are not a civilised organisation. This is a mob made up of different clans who cannot agree among themselves," he told Fifth Channel.

"First of all, they cannot divide up money or do anything else. To put it bluntly, nearly five times preliminary agreements were reached and then turned out to be inconclusive."

Controversy still surrounds the ultimate destination of the Faina’s cargo.

A regional maritime group based in Kenya, and foreign diplomats in the region, have said it was destined for south Sudan via Kenya — a possible embarrassment for Kenya, which helped broker a 2005 peace deal in Sudan.

Kenyan and Ukrainian officials deny that. (Writing by Ron Popeski; editing by Andrew Roche)

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