MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Pirates holding a hijacked ship off Somalia gave no indication they planned to surrender, as six U.S. warships circled the vessel Friday with clearance from the Somali government to attack it, and a Russian frigate headed toward the standoff.
Meanwhile, activists condemned Kenya’s arrest of a Kenyan maritime official on Wednesday night who had been the first to tip off media that the weapons aboard the ship hijacked nine days ago were heading to Southern Sudan. His account was later confirmed by the U.S. Navy and Western intelligence sources.
Kenya has vehemently denied statements by the official, Andrew Mwangura, that the 33 Soviet-designed tanks and weapons onboard the MV Faina were destined for neighboring Southern Sudan. The Kenyan government insists Kenya is the final destination.
The allegation is highly embarrassing to Kenya, which brokered Sudan’s north-south peace deal in 2005. Southern Sudan is due to have a referendum on independence in 2011. Many analysts believe the north will be reluctant to let the oil-rich south break away, risking a return to the civil war that has already claimed 2 million lives.
The Somali government has given foreign powers the freedom to use force against the pirates holding the Faina and its 20 crew members. It is anchored near the central Somali town of Hobyo, with six American warships within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of it.
Russia, whose warship is not expected for several days, has used commando tactics to end several hostage situations on its own soil, but dozens of hostages have died in those efforts.
On Thursday, pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told The Associated Press via satellite telephone that the pirates were prepared to defend the ship and would not take less than their stated ransom of US$20 million. It was not immediately possible to reach Ali on Friday morning.
The American Navy warships have been tracking Faina amid fears that its weapons might fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked Islamic insurgents in Somalia, and this week, eight European countries have offered to form a combined anti-piracy force at the invitation of the Somali government. Some 26 ships have been hijacked off the notorious Somali coast this year already.
In Kenya, government spokesman Alfred Mutua refused to comment on Friday about the arrest of Mwagura, who was charged with making “inflammatory statements.”
Leonard Vincent, a spokesman for Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said the charges against Mwangura might stop other officials coming forward with information in a country rated as one of the most corrupt in the world.
“We think it is a dangerous precedent and a signal sent to those who have information contradicting the Kenyan government,” he said. “We are not used to seeing this in Kenya, that is why we are outraged and surprised.”
Hassan Omar Hassan, a commissioner of the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights, said Mwangura told Hassan he had been warned by intelligence officials, police and local officials not to comment publicly on the weapons’ destination.
“He has caused a public relations nightmare for the government,” Hassan said. “If its a matter of public interest, the public has a right to information.”
Mwangura also was charged with possessing four joints of marijuana on Thursday. A judge ruled he should be held for five days in prison while further investigations were made.
Mutua, the Kenyan government spokesman, accused Mwangura at a televised news conference of being a go-between for the pirates.
Those charges were not brought before a court.