Crew member of hijacked ship dead, Somali town official says

(AP Photo/U.S. Navy/ho)
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(CNN) -- A crew member of a Ukrainian vessel pirates seized off the African coast last week has died, a Somali town commissioner said Sunday.

A photo from the USS Howard shows Somali pirates in small boats hijacking the MV Faina last week.

1 of 3 Abdi Salan Khalif, commissioner of the coastal town of Harardhere, Somalia, said the pirates told town elders the man died of problems relating to high blood pressure.

Khalif said the pirates, who were communicating with the elders and the U.S. Navy by radio, reported they were holding the crew in a hot part of the ship.

The ship Faina, loaded with tanks and weapons, was seized Thursday not far from its destination port of Mombasa, Kenya, officials said. Ukraine had sold the weapons to Kenya, said Ukraine Defense Minister Yuri Yekhanurov, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

On Friday, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted a source in Kiev, Ukraine, as saying the pirates had contacted the Kenyan Defense Ministry to obtain information about the ship's owner so ransom negotiations could begin. Watch CNN's David McKenzie report on the hijacking »

However, Dr. Alfred N. Mutua, a spokesman for the Kenyan government, said Sunday it had neither been contacted by the pirates nor asked to pay ransom.

"Combined security efforts are still going on to secure the ship ferrying Kenya military equipment that was hijacked ... by pirates off the Somali coast," Mutua said in a written statement.

"The Kenyan government is NOT in contact with the pirates. ... The Kenyan government will not engage in answering back to terrorists who have hijacked important military equipment paid for by the Kenyan taxpayer for use by the Kenyan military."

The Ukrainian defense ministry said the ship is carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, tank artillery shells, grenade launchers and small arms. The ship departed from Nikolayev, Ukraine, officials said.

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The Pentagon said U.S. naval ships in the area are "monitoring the situation."

"I think we're looking at the full range of options here," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, because the United States does not want the pirates to dock the ship in Somalia and offload the weapons.

Khalif said representatives of Harardhere "have told the pirates that they can't bring any crew or material from that ship to our town because we don't want to risk a military response from the surrounding military navies."

Faina is owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine, and its crew includes citizens of Ukraine, Russia and Latvia, the U.S. Navy said.

U.S. officials said the ship reported being surrounded by three small boats of pirates while sailing 250 miles off the coast of Somalia.