The pirates who hijacked an arms-laden Ukrainian tanker off the coast of Somalia threatened Friday to blow up the ship if no ransom is paid.
The MV Faina is surrounded by U.S. warships, and a Russian frigate is heading toward the scene, raising the stakes for a possible commando-style raid on the ship.
"We held a consultative meeting for more than three hours today and decided to blow up the ship and its cargo — us included — if the ship owners did not meet our ransom demand," Sugule Ali, a spokesman for the bandits, told The Associated Press when a reporter called the ship via satellite telephone.
"After three days, starting from tomorrow, the news of the ship will be closed. We know what to do next," he said.
The pirates had said Thursday they were willing to negotiate their ransom demand of $20 million, after nearly two weeks of insisting they would never lower the price.
The U.S. Navy, which has six warships surrounding the Faina off the central coast of Somalia, had no comment on the pirates' threat Friday, said Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain and helps monitor Somalia's coast.
Pirates have seized more than two dozen ships this year off the Horn of Africa, but the hijacking of the Faina has drawn the most international concern because of its dangerous cargo.
Momentum has been growing for coordinated international action against the pirate menace.
NATO ministers agreed Thursday that they would have seven ships in the area within two weeks. Six U.S. warships already surround the Faina off the central coast of Somalia, and helicopters buzz overhead daily. Russia announced it would cooperate with the West in the fight, and several European countries have said they would launch an anti-piracy patrol.
The U.N. Security Council this week called on countries to send naval ships and military aircraft, and U.S. warships are being diverted from counterterrorism duties to respond to the sea bandits.
Somalia's government has given foreign powers the freedom to use force against the pirates.
Ali said several fighter jets and a drone were hovering over the ship.
"It appears that they are readying for an operation," he said. "Helicopters, fighter jets and an unmanned drone are constantly flying over us all day long ... It is around-the-clock surveillance."
Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said earlier that Ukraine does not want foreign countries to use power to take the ship. Most of the 20 remaining crew member aboard the Faina are Ukrainian.
"We are against a forceful scenario, we believe there need to be negotiations," he said. "What is most important is people."