NAIROBI (Reuters) – Rival Somali pirates arguing over what to do with a hijacked Ukrainian ship and its cargo of 33 tanks engaged in a shootout on board, killing three of their number, a maritime group said on Tuesday.
In the most high-profile of this year’s wave of hijackings off lawless Somalia, pirates seized the MV Faina six days ago and have demanded $20 million in ransom.
U.S. navy ships are shadowing the boat, whose capture 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.
Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program, said factions among the roughly 50 pirates on board had argued over whether to free the cargo and 20-man crew.
“The radicals on board do not want to listen to anyone,” said Mwangura, whose Kenya-based group is monitoring the saga via relatives of the crew and the pirates. “The moderates want to back-peddle. The Americans are close, so everyone is tense. There was a shootout and three of the pirates were shot dead.”
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.
Such a shipment could violate the terms of a north-south peace pact in Sudan unless specifically authorized by both sides who signed a 2005 truce after more than two decades of war.
Kenya says the armory was for its 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 Suez, including Gulf oil shipments. 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 building new homes and taking new wives onshore, the increasingly rich pirates have bought speedboats, satellite phones and other equipment to aid their trade. They, and middlemen acting as financiers, are making millions in ransoms.
“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.”
He said higher insurance prices for goods coming to the region were adding to hardships around the Horn of Africa.
U.S. analyst J. Peter Pham, of Madison University, called for a united international naval response, more attention on 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.