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Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks freed by Somali pirates

A MERCHANT ship carrying tanks and weapons held by pirates off the coast of Somalia since September has been freed, Ukraine's president announced today.

A spokesman for the owners of the MV Faina said yesterday that a ransom was paid on to the pirates. The brief statement from the office of President Viktor Yushchenko did not refer to a ransom, but said the ship was freed as the result of an operation involving special-services agents from Ukraine.

The Faina is loaded with military hardware and there had been fears the arms would fall into the hands of al-Qaida-backed Somali insurgents.

Presidential spokeswoman Irina Vannikova was quoted as telling Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency that "the ship is now under the guard of forces of the US navy and is preparing to head for the Kenyan port of Mombasa."

One of the pirates told The Associated Press by satellite telephone that some of the pirates remained on board.

"We are not holding it (the ship) now anymore," said Aden Abdi Omar, one of those who left the ship. "But our men should disembark first for it to move to wherever it wants."

The US Navy said it appeared the ransom was dropped yesterday.

"We have all indications that a ransom was paid regarding Faina," Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said today.

Christensen said US Navy ships, monitoring the Ukrainian arms ship, "saw something that could be a ransom, dropped on the ship yesterday."

Omar said two boats have been sent to collect more than two dozen other pirates still on board. He said he would give more details later.

Mikhail Voitenko, a spokesman for the ship's owner, said the pirates had received a ransom yesterday. He did not say how much was paid, but ITAR-Tass news agency put it at US$3.2 million. The pirates originally demanded US$20 million.

The MV Faina carrying a cargo of tanks, other weaponry and about 20 mostly Ukrainian crew members was seized by bandits in September off the Somali coast. Ships of the US Navy's 5th Fleet surrounded it to be sure the cargo did not get into the hands of Somali insurgent groups linked to al-Qaida.

"The ransom has been delivered to the Faina. The owners of the ship so far don't want to comment on this, but I'm getting information on this just about every half-hour," Voitenko said in comments on Russian TV yesterday. "A pile of pirates are counting the haul on the Faina. I hope that nothing will be disrupted and the sailors will soon be able to disembark."

Voitenko did not answer repeated phone calls seeking further comment.

The seizure of the Faina was one of the most daring attacks by Somali pirates in recent years.

Last year Somalia became the global piracy hotspot. A total of 111 attacks on ships reported, with 42 of them being seized.

Somalia does not have a coast guard or navy because it has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. They then turned on each other, reducing Somalia to anarchy and chaos.


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