MOGADISHU, Somalia, (AP) – Pirates holding an arms shipment off Somalia’s treacherous coast for $20 million ransom said Tuesday they were celebrating the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, despite being surrounded by American warships and helicopters.
“We are happy on the ship and we are celebrating Eid,” pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told The Associated Press by satellite phone. “Nothing has changed.”
Ali did not say whether the ship’s 21-member crew, which includes Ukrainians, Russians and Latvians, would be included in the feast that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. One crew member has died of an apparent heart attack.
The blue-and-white Ukrainian ship has been buzzed by American helicopters since Sunday. Pirates hijacked the Faina and its cargo of 33 Soviet-designed tanks and weapons on Thursday while the ship was passing through the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, en route to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
Ali said the vessel was surrounded by four warships on Monday evening, though he could not identify where the ships were from. The San Diego-based USS destroyer Howard has been watching the pirate ship for several days and has spoken to the pirates and crew by radio. On Monday, U.S. naval officials said several American ships had joined the watch but declined to give details.
U.S. Navy officials said they have allowed the pirates to resupply, but not to unload the dangerous cargo.
The U.S. fears the armaments may end up with al-Qaida-linked Islamic militants who have been fighting an insurgency against the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali transitional government since late 2006, when the Islamists were driven out after six months in power. More than 9,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the Iraq-style insurgency.
“Our goal is to ensure the safety of the crew, to not allow off-loading of dangerous cargo and to make certain Faina can return to legitimate shipping,” said Rear Adm. Kendall Card, commander of the task force monitoring the ship.
Russia has also dispatched a warship to the area, which will take about a week to get there.
The destination of the ship’s cargo is in dispute. Kenya claims the weapons are theirs. American military sources and diplomats say they are destined for Southern Sudan.
The oil-rich south was promised a referendum in 2011 on independence from the rest of Sudan as part of a peace deal that ended a 21-year civil war three years ago. Southern Sudanese officials said they were “surprised” to hear reports that the tanks and arms were destined for them.
Piracy has become a lucrative criminal racket in impoverished Somalia, bringing in millions of dollars in ransom.
There have been 24 reported attacks in Somalia this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center. In June, the U.N. Security Council voted to allow international warships to enter Somali waters to combat the problem, but its 1,880-mile coastline — the longest in Africa — remains virtually unpoliced.