updated 10/15/2008 6:55:12 PM ET 2008-10-15T22:55:12

Somali pirates holding an arms-laden Ukrainian ship have withdrawn their threat to blow up the vessel if a ransom is not paid, and said Wednesday they are negotiating for its release.

The pirates, whose original $20 million ransom demand appears to have decreased to $8 million, had threatened to destroy the MV Faina by early Tuesday.

"We have withdrawn it," spokesman Sugule Ali said Wednesday by satellite phone from the ship, which pirates seized with its cargo of tanks and heavy weapons off the coast of Somalia on Sept. 25.

"Negotiations have resumed. There were a lot of requests so we have canceled the deadline altogether," Ali said.

The Faina is one of 29 ships hijacked this year off the African coast. The latest is a Philippine bulk carrier seized in the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday with a crew of 21, Noel Choong of the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.

Choong said the Philippines-operated ship, flying a Panamanian flag, had been sailing from the Middle East to Asia when it was seized.

He said 11 of the hijacked ships remain in the hands of pirates, along with more than 200 crew members. Somalia, with no effective government since 1991, is not able to guard its long coastline.

Show of force
The Faina has drawn particular concern because of its military cargo. U.S. warships have surrounded it since the beginning of the incident to prevent pirates from unloading the weapons.

International pressure on the pirates is growing.

A NATO flotilla of seven ships is en route to the area and was moving through the Suez Canal on Wednesday. Destroyers from Italy and the United States, frigates from Germany, Greece, Turkey and Britain and a German auxiliary vessel make up the naval group.

The ships had already been scheduled to sail to the region, but some will be diverted to the anti-piracy mission, NATO said. Details of which tasks each ship will take on, and the rules for how they will handle pirates they encounter are still being worked out, he told reporters.

Alliance spokesman James Appathurai said NATO will work closely with the European Union, which is expected to take over the mission in December.

The European Union, sending its own naval force to conduct anti-piracy operations, said Wednesday that preparations to dispatch the ships in December were going according to plan and that member states had agreed to appoint a British vice admiral to lead it.

Russia has announced it would cooperate on fighting the pirates.

Crew members 'doing well'
Ali, pirate spokesman on the Ukrainian ship, said negotiations were going very well, but he declined to say who was negotiating. In the past they have said they were talking with the ship's owner.

He said the 20 crew members on board the Faina "are doing well."

Relatives of Ukrainian crew members on the Faina have insisted their government pay the ransom, but the government says it does not negotiate with terrorists. Ukraine's National Security Service said Wednesday it was in touch with the ship's owners in trying to solve the crisis.

Ukraine's top human rights official, Nina Karpachova, met with the crew members' relatives on Tuesday and called for a ransom to be paid.

In remarks released by her office Wednesday, she said Ukrainian authorities had overseen the delivery of fuel to the ship, but that the pirates refused to accept food. According to Karpachova, the ship has enough water and food to last five days.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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