NAIROBI -- Somali pirates said Thursday that they were freeing a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and other heavy weapons after receiving a $3.2 million ransom. The U.S. Navy said it was watching the pirates leaving the ship.
The MV Faina was seized by bandits in September in one of the most brazen acts in a surge of attacks on shipping off the Somali coast. Vessels from the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet surrounded it after it was seized to make sure the cargo did not get into the hands of Somali insurgent groups linked to al-Qaida.
A spokesman for the owners said that the pirates had received a ransom but it was far below their original demand of $20 million.
Mikhail Voitenko said the pirates were leaving the ship in small groups on boats carrying portions of the ransom. U.S. seamen were inspecting the departing boats to make sure they weren't taking weapons from the Faina's cargo, Voitenko said.
"The U.S. Navy is observing the pirates departing the ship," a U.S. Navy official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The U.S. did not immediately comment on whether it was inspecting the boats.
"The whole thing is practically over and done with," Ali said from the central Somali coastal town of Harardhere, near where the MV Faina is anchored. "Our plan is to abandon the ship today (Thursday), by early evening at the latest."
Ali said his group was paid a ransom of $3.2 million, which he said was dropped by plane.
"We are not holding it (the ship) now anymore," Aden Abdi Omar, one of the pirates who left the ship told the AP from Harardhere. "But our men should disembark first for it to move to wherever it wants."
Ukraine's president said earlier that the ship had already been freed.
Presidential spokeswoman Irina Vannikova was quoted as telling Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency that "the ship is now under the guard of forces of the U.S. navy and is preparing to head for the Kenyan port of Mombasa."
The crew includes 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian, Russian news agencies said.
A total of 111 attacks on ships of the Somali coast were reported last year, with 42 seized.
Analysts say although attempts to hijack ships remain steady at around 15 a month, the pirates are proving less successful. The pirates took two ships in December and three ships since the beginning of the year, compared with seven in November and five in October.
Graeme Gibbon Brooks, managing director of the British company Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service Ltd., said the drop was partly attributable to activity by nations that have sent ships to deter attacks and partly to unseasonably bad weather. Most of the 16 attempted hijackings in 2009 occurred in the first two weeks of January, when the weather was good.
But the pirates were showing a worrying new sophistication in their attacks, he said, jamming emergency frequencies with Arabic music or sending out false distress calls to lure warships away.
Somalia does not have a coast guard or navy because it has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. They then turned on each other, reducing Somalia to anarchy and chaos.
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