World News

Somali pirates free Ukrainian ship: negotiator

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali pirates released a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks on Thursday following a ransom payment, a local man who helped negotiate the deal said.

The MV Faina was captured in September with its 20-man crew and a cargo of 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks plus other weapons. Its seizure drew international attention, not only for its military cargo, but for a regional row over the destination of the tanks.

“The last group of pirates has got down now and MV Faina is released,” the negotiator, who asked not to be named, told Reuters from the Somali port of Haradheere.

The man told Reuters on Wednesday the pirates had been paid a ransom of $3.2 million.

Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, a Kenyan-based piracy monitoring group, said foreign naval ships in the area were moving toward the MV Faina, which he said had yet to leave the Somali port.

“We hear the navies are moving closer probably to escort it,” he said. “But it hasn’t changed position yet.”

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko welcomed the end of the protracted process to free the vessel and its crew.

“The 17 Ukrainian sailors will soon be able to see their loved ones on Ukrainian soil,” a statement on his Internet site said.

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

South Sudan has consistently denied the tanks were for its army.

“I have no information. They are not ours,” Biar Ajang, a senior member of the south’s former rebel army, said on Thursday.

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 to stop the gangs. Piracy has raised insurance costs and prompted some ship owners to send their vessels on longer routes around South Africa instead of via the Suez Canal.

Additional reporting by David Clarke and Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Katie Nguyen