Released Tank Ship Sails to Kenya Port

ReutersCrew members of the Faina disembarking in Mombasa on Thursday.
MOMBASA, Kenya -- A Ukrainian ship laden with tanks and freed by Somali pirates after a five-month hijacking approached port in Kenya on Thursday with debate still ranging over ownership of the sensitive military cargo.

In one of the highest-profile seizures of recent times, pirates captured the MV Faina in September with its 20-man crew and a cargo of 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks plus other weapons.

Kenyans cheered at Mombasa port keyside as the boat came into dock. Tired-looking crew members smiled as they trooped off the ship, shaking hands with Ukrainian officials waiting to meet them and to arrange medical checks and transport home.

"We have returned and are returning home alive and unhurt," said acting captain Viktor Nikolsky. "Thank you to everyone who took part in our liberation. We are exhausted. We will now undergo a short medical check and hand over the ship to another crew. No one is ill. Everyone is well."

The Faina's Russian captain died in the first days of the hijacking. His body was offloaded at Mombasa on Thursday.

A regional maritime group of former diplomats based in Kenya's Mombasa port has said the ship's arms were destined for southern Sudan -- a possible embarrassment for Kenya, which helped broker a 2005 peace deal there.

But Kenyan and Ukrainian officials waiting for the ship on Thursday again denied that claim.

"The cargo that the Faina is carrying was purchased from the Ukrainian government by the Kenyan government," Kenya's deputy defense minister, David Musila, told reporters. "This is our cargo."

The head of Ukraine's foreign intelligence service, Mykola Malomuzh, backed that up. "The cargo is being shipped in legal fashion to Kenya for the Kenyan armed forces," he said. "We hereby reject all accusations suggesting that the cargo is being shipped to other countries."

The Somali pirates released the Faina last week after taking a ransom of $3.2 million, according to regional maritime sources and members of the gang themselves.

The ship's manifest, seen by Reuters, lists Kenya as the "consignee" but gives MOD/GOSS as the contract reference.

GOSS is an abbreviation widely used around Africa for Government of South Sudan. But Nairobi has said that in this context it stood for "General Ordinance Supplies and Security," a department of Kenya's Defense Ministry.

"Kenya has to save face here," a European diplomat said. "They will deliver the equipment to their military with great fanfare and in front of all the cameras, then when no one's looking, a year or so down the line, off it will go to Sudan."