Pirates Free Ukrainian Cargo Ship For $3.2M

NAIROBI, Kenya -- 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 vessels off the Somali coast. Vessels from the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet surrounded it after it was seized to make sure that the cargo did not get into the hands of Somali insurgent groups believed to be linked to al-Qaida.

A spokesman for the Faina's owners said 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 were not taking weapons from the Faina's cargo, Voitenko said.

Commander Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said the Navy was not taking action against the pirates because it did not want members of other crews still in captivity to be harmed.

"Even when you release Faina, there are still 147 mariners held hostage by armed pirates," Campbell said Thursday. "We're concerned for their well-being."

Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said by satellite phone that the pirates were leaving the ship slowly because the waters are "a bit turbulent."

"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 [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 [the ship] now anymore," Aden Abdi Omar, one of the pirates who left the ship said from Harardhere. "But our men should disembark first for it to move to wherever it wants."

The MV Faina was loaded with 33 Soviet-designed battle tanks and crates of small arms. In the past, diplomats in the region have said the cargo was destined for southern Sudan, something the autonomous region has denied.

Spokesman Alfred Mutua repeated the Kenyan government's claim to the cargo Thursday.

Nina Karpachova, Ukraine's top human rights official, said the ship will go to Mombasa, Kenya. If the crew is able to start the main engine, the ship will sail under its own power; otherwise it will be towed. The U.S. Navy will help provide security for the ship, she said.

Karpachova confirmed that the crew onboard the MV Faina is comprised of 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and a Latvian.

As soon as all the pirates have left the ship, Ukraine expects the U.S. Navy to send doctors onboard to provide first aid to the sailors. "It's understandable that their health is poor and they are psychologically exhausted," she said.