- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2008

MOSCOW | A Russian warship on Friday rushed to intercept a Ukrainian vessel carrying 33 battle tanks and a hoard of ammunition that was seized by pirates off the Horn of Africa — a bold hijacking that heightened fears about surging piracy and high-seas terrorism.

U.S. naval ships were in the area and “monitoring the situation,” and a U.S. Defense Department official said Washington was concerned about the attack.

“I think we’re looking at the full range of options here,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

It was not clear whether the pirates who seized the 530-foot cargo ship Faina on Thursday knew what it carried. Still, analysts said it would be extremely difficult to sell such high-profile weaponry like Russian tanks.

Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said the missile frigate Neustrashimy left the Baltic Sea port of Baltiisk a day before the hijacking to cooperate with other unspecified countries in anti-piracy efforts.

He said the ship was then ordered directly to the coast of Somalia after Thursday’s attack.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Yury Yekhanurov said the hijacked vessel was carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks and a substantial quantity of ammunition and spare parts. He said the tanks were sold to Kenya in accordance with international law.

Ukrainian officials and an anti-piracy watchdog said 21 crew members were aboard the seized ship, including three Russians. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ordered unspecified measures to free the crew, but it was not clear whether any of the former Soviet republic’s naval vessels had been dispatched.

A Kenyan government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, confirmed the East African nation’s military had ordered the tanks and spare parts.

Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet, said U.S. vessels were “monitoring the situation.”

The Pentagon spokesman said the United States was worried about the ship’s cargo.

“A ship carrying cargo of that nature being hijacked off the coast of Somalia is something that should concern us, and it does concern us. And we are monitoring the situation and taking a look at what the options might be,” Mr. Whitman said.

Roger Middleton, a researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said it was unlikely the pirates knew there were tanks aboard the Faina, and said unloading the cargo would be difficult.

Pirate attacks worldwide have surged this year and Africa remains the world’s top piracy hot spot, with 24 reported attacks in Somalia and 18 in Nigeria this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center.


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