NAIROBI (Reuters) – Somali authorities have given Russia’s navy the go-ahead to use force against pirates holding a Ukrainian ship hijacked with 33 tanks on board, a maritime official said on Wednesday.
Russia has sent a warship, but it has yet to arrive off lawless Somalia, where gunmen demanding $20 million seized the MV Faina last week. U.S. naval ships are watching the vessel, hijacked near one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
“The Somali government has given permission to the Russian navy to enter Somali waters and use force,” said Andrew Mwangura, an official of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers Assistance Program.
“On behalf of the seafarers’ families, we are requesting them not to use force because it will put the men in danger.”
The crew of 20 are mostly Ukrainians, but include two Russians. Another Russian died of illness after the hijacking.
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.
Germany announced on Wednesday it would provide a frigate for an EU naval task force comprised of three frigates, a supply ship and three maritime surveillance ships to fight piracy off the African coast.
Twice this year, French commandoes have stormed hijacked yachts, rescued captured French nationals and taken pirates away for prosecution.
A Somali official said the government was ready to work with any country to fight the gangs.
“We have allowed the world to help us against the pirates and Russia is part of the world, but on condition that they coordinate with us,” Mohamed Jama Ali, acting permanent secretary in the foreign affairs ministry, told Reuters.
Mwangura said the pirates were in talks with the ship’s owners. He said the ship was owned by a Panama-based firm and managed by the Ukrainians.
Global shipping groups called last month on naval powers to do more to stop piracy in the region.
The groups, including the International Chamber of Shipping, Intercargo, Bimco and oil tanker group Intercargo, said they were “utterly amazed” governments were unable to secure one of the world’s most important seaways.
Continued inaction risked causing a repetition of the crisis in the early 1970s when the Suez Canal was closed and merchant shipping was diverted round the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip, they said.
The capture of the Faina has thrown a spotlight on piracy in the region and also raised questions over the destination of its cargo. Kenya says the T-72 tanks, grenade-launchers and ammunition were for its military but the U.S. navy has said it believes they could have been headed for south Sudan.