Somali troops free cargo ship held for 5 days

/ Source: The Associated Press

Soldiers from a semiautonomous Somali region, their guns blazing, freed a Panama-flagged cargo ship from pirates Tuesday as other pirates failed to act on their threat to blow up an arms-laden Ukrainian ship if no ransom was paid.

Relatives of crew members of the Ukrainian vessel, which is carrying battle tanks and other heavy weapons, have asked Ukraine to pay the ransom pirates have demanded. The demand started at $20 million but appears to have been reduced.

The Panama-flagged vessel and its 11 crew members — nine Syrians and two Somalis — were freed after a gun battle in which one soldier was killed and three wounded, said Deputy Seaport Minister Abdiqadir Muse Geele. No hostages or pirates were hurt, Geele said.

The 10 pirates who had held the ship since Thursday surrendered when they ran out of ammunition, said Geele, a deputy minister in the government of the northern Somalia semiautonomous region of Puntland.

Puntland's Foreign Minister Ali Abdi Aware said his government's ragtag coast guard can fight pirates in the region, which is a hotbed of maritime hijackings.

"We will continue to fight against pirates," Aware said. "The world should halt paying ransom."

Deadline passes
Pirates had threatened to destroy the Ukrainian ship by early Tuesday unless ransom was paid. But the U.S. Navy said the deadline passed without incident.

The MV Faina, carrying a crew of 20, is still in one piece, said Lt. Stephanie Murdock, a spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

American warships continue to monitor the Faina, which is anchored near the Somali port of Hobyo, Murdock said.

A spokesman for the pirates had said Monday they were considering extending the deadline. They have held the ship and its crew since Sept. 25.

The pirates were not available for comment Tuesday.

Relatives of the crew members demanded Monday that the Ukrainian government stop delaying and just pay the ransom. They tried and failed to meet with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Ukraine's government says it opposes the use of force against the pirates, but as a matter of policy it will not negotiate with terrorists. The government of Somalia has authorized other nations to use military force to end the hijacking.

The ship's operator, the Tomex Corp. of Odessa, Ukraine, has not commented on negotiations.

The threat by the pirates holding the Faina was unusual. Pirates operating off Somalia rarely harm their hostages, instead holding out for ransoms that often exceed $1 million.

Pirates have seized more than two dozen ships this year off the Horn of Africa, but the Faina has drawn intense interest 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. NATO is sending seven ships to the treacherous waters in which the Faina is being held.

The ship's Russian captain died of a heart condition soon after the hijacking.