NAIROBI: The Somali pirates who hijacked an arms-laden Ukrainian freighter nearly two weeks ago may soon be getting their treasure — loads of it, maritime officials and associates of the pirates said on Wednesday.
After sticky negotiations, which several people involved likened to bazaar-style haggling, a deal seemed to be close in which the pirates would be paid millions of dollars and the ship would be freed.
"The pirates and the ship owners have agreed on around $8 million," said Ahmed Omar, a businessman in Xarardheere, a notorious pirate den on the coast of Somalia. "The ship may be freed today or tomorrow."
Maritime officials in Kenya were more cautious, saying crucial details had to be worked out. For starters, the pirates were asking for guarantees that they would not be arrested or blown out of the water by the armada of American warships currently circling them.
"This isn't like buying a used car and driving off," said a maritime official in Kenya. "The lousy money is only part of this."
Still, the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday, "Progress is being made. The parties are getting closer."
The pirates first asked for $35 million, but came down to $20 million. And they always indicated that they were ready to entertain discounts.
More than 25 ships have been hijacked this year off Somalia and the going ransom is usually $1 million to $2 million.
The pirates on the Ukrainian ship have said that after the money is paid — in American dollars and preferably in $100 bills, they will release the ship, its cargo and the 20 sailors on board.
A persistent question has been what country was the original destination of the arms shipment. Shortly after the freighter was hijacked on Sept. 25, the Kenyan government said that the weapons on board _ 33 T-72 tanks, 150 grenade launchers, 6 anti-aircraft guns and heaps of ammunition _ were destined for Kenya's military. The ship had been headed for Mombasa, Kenya's main port.
Subsequently, evidence has emerged that the weapons were part of a clandestine arms deal between Kenya and the separatist region of southern Sudan, a deal that probably would have remained secret had the pirates not hijacked the ship and begun talking to the world's media by satellite phone. Ukrainian officials have been adamant that they did nothing wrong.
"Ukraine does not supply — or have plans to supply — any armaments to the government of south Sudan," said Oleh Belokolos, a Ukrainian diplomat in Kenya. "All the appropriate paperwork has been validated. Ukraine follows all United Nations rules and arms control agreements."
Ukraine is a major arms dealer, having inherited enormous stockpiles of weaponry after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What is suspicious in this deal is that, up until now, Kenya has mostly relied on Britain and other Western countries for its heavy weapons. Meanwhile, southern Sudan, an autonomous region that is currently building up its military, uses Soviet-designed tanks. Kenyan politicians were demanding answers and have called for several commissions to look into the matter.
The American military said its priority is to make sure the weapons were not taken off the ship and sold to Islamist insurgents in Somalia. The pirates have said they are not interested in the weapons and that they had no idea there were tanks on board when they hijacked the ship.
"We just want the money," said Sugule Ali, the pirates' spokesman, in an interview last week.
Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.
From International Herald Tribune October 08, 2008
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