updated 2/27/2007 6:28:42 PM ET 2007-02-27T23:28:42

Somali authorities have arrested six suspected pirates in the hijacking of a U.N.-chartered cargo ship delivering food aid, officials said Tuesday.

Four heavily armed pirates still had control of the vessel and were holding 12 crew members hostage, said the U.N. food agency. The ship, the MV Rozen, had been contracted to deliver aid to Somalia, where around 1 million people are suffering from a drought that hit the region last year.

Four suspects were seized after they went ashore to buy supplies, Peter Goossens, the head of the World Food Program in Somalia, said in a statement. Sa’id Mohamed Raage, the regional fishing minister, said police arrested two others separately.

“The arrest is welcome news, but the safe release of the crew and the vessel remains our chief concern,” Goossens said. “We very much hope this ordeal will finish soon.”

The pirates are armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, said Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenyan chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Program, an independent group that monitors piracy in the region.

“Negotiations are under way to try and secure the release of the vessel,” he added. The condition of the six Sri Lankan and six Kenyan crew members was unknown.

The ship had just delivered about 1,900 tons of food when it was seized Sunday. It has been anchored six miles off the coast of the semiautonomous Puntland region in northeastern Somalia, near Bargal.

Last March, the same ship managed to escape an attempted hijacking by five pirates. Motaku Shipping, the owner of the MV Rozen, has had all four of its ships seized by pirates in the last two years, according to a report in The Shipping Times.

Three Somali police speedboats were surrounding the MV Rozen and a U.S. military vessel was patrolling the area Tuesday to monitor the situation.

“We are appealing for the safe return of the crew and the vessel as soon as possible, and for people to respect the need for humanitarian delivery corridors,” Goossens said. “Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and there are families whose lives depend on our ability to get food aid through.”

Pirates armed and trained
Somali pirates are trained fighters, often dressed in military fatigues, using speedboats equipped with satellite phones and Global Positioning System equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades, according to the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia.

The bandits target passenger, cargo and fishing vessels for ransom or loot.

The 1,860-mile coast of Somalia, which has had no effective government since warlords ousted a dictatorship in 1991 and then turned on each other, has become extremely dangerous for ships.

In southern Somalia, fisherman Mohamed Abdi said U.S. Marine or Navy officers took fishermen from eight boats to their ship about 500 miles off the coast to question them about ties to the pirates and Somalia’s Islamic movement that was ousted in December.

“We urge government officials to plead our case to the U.S. government because the interruption affects our earnings. We use boats for fishing, but not for other illegal purposes. We are not sea pirates and we are not sympathizers of terrorists,” Abdi said by phone from Marka, a port 56 miles southwest of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

Fishing Marine Resources Minister Hassan Abshir Farah said the U.S. officials’ actions were acceptable because Somalia does not have its own coast guard and its coastline “has been considered one of the worst waters in the world.”

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