NAIROBI, (Reuters) – Somali pirates have seized a Ukrainian ship carrying at least 30 tanks and some Russian crew, a maritime group said on Friday, and Russia announced it was sending a warship to the region to combat piracy.
The U.N. World Food Programme said Canada had also extended its vital naval escorts of food aid shipments for another month.
Pirates have captured more than 30 vessels off Somalia this year, making its waters the most dangerous in the world and threatening a globally important shipping lane between Europe and Asia. The gangs seek, and often get, large ransoms.
The East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme said the Ukrainian ship seized on Thursday was carrying tanks. Ukrainian news agency Interfax-Ukraine also said the ship, under a Belize flag, had a military cargo “including about 30 T-72 tanks”. That would be a significant seizure in Somalia, where Islamist insurgents have been battling for nearly two years against the government and its Ethiopian military ally.
Although under a U.N. arms embargo, the Horn of Africa nation is awash with arms. Reports the tanks had been taken also raised questions about their original planned destination. “Some say it was carrying about 38 tanks, others say 30,” said Andrew Mwangura, of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme.
“In the past, military equipment has come through Mombasa on its way to south Sudan, but we have not seen any south Sudanese officials at the port waiting. And anyway, there is an arms embargo for Sudan.”
A statement from Ukraine’s foreign ministry identified the vessel as the Faina, but made no reference to its cargo. It said 17 of 21 crew members, including the captain, were believed to be Ukrainian. The others were from Russia and Latvia.
Russia’s navy said it had sent a warship to Somalia’s coast and would mount regular anti-piracy patrols in the area.
Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo told the Vesti-24 television station one Russian warship left its base on the Baltic Sea on Sept. 24 heading for the area.
Many of the ships have been seized in the Gulf of Aden, a major sea artery used by some 20,000 vessels a year heading to and from the Suez Canal. The shipping lane carries almost a tenth of the world’s shipping by tonnage.
Pirates are holding about a dozen vessels and more than 200 crew members at the moment. Their business has flourished as an Islamist-led insurgency on shore has deepened. Somalia has been in civil conflict since 1991.
The United Nations food agency welcomed a four-week extension of escorts by the Canadian navy, which will allow it to continue delivering emergency rations to about 2.4 million people in Somalia.
“It is a great relief to us,” WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella told a news briefing in Geneva. “We continue to look for naval escorts beyond October 23.”
Canada has provided escorts since mid-August and had been due to halt its service on Saturday. France, Denmark, and the Netherlands supplied escorts previously.
The World Food Programme is trying to provide 35,000 tonnes of food to Somalia each month, 90 percent of it by sea from ports in Kenya and South Africa, according to Casella. “Patrols are not enough to deter pirates. We need escorts,” she said.
Aid agencies voiced concern on Friday at a fresh exodus from Mogadishu, due to intensified fighting. The African Union condemned rebel assaults on its peacekeepers there as “calculated provocation” and vowed to fight future attacks.