Cold War stand-off over pirates' weapons ship

Tanker laden with deadly military hardware remains under the control of hijackers off the coast of Somalia; Russia sends frigate to the Indian Ocean, joining US vessels as concern grows over fate of cargo

Russia has dispatched a frigate to the scene of an increasingly tense stand-off between the US Navy and pirates who have seized a tanker laden with tanks and weapons in the Indian Ocean off Somalia.

The tussle over the fate of the Soviet-designed tanks captured off a failed African state has developed into an international incident worthy of a James Bond novel. Pirates are demanding a $20m (£11m) ransom and governments in the region are denying any knowledge of the arms shipment, amid fears of a new civil war in Sudan.

Russia has seized upon the crisis to send the missile frigate The Intrepid, prompting speculation that it might attempt to free hostages in another public projection of its military power.

American helicopters and warships from the 5th Fleet have surrounded the Ukraine-flagged Faina after Somali pirates boarded her six days ago and seized a cargo which includes 33 T-72 battle tanks, ammunition and heavy weapons such as rocket launchers.

The US squadron has sent helicopters low over the deck of the seized tanker and has made it clear they will not allow the pirates to land their haul, which it is feared would be handed over to Islamic insurgents that Washington believes are linked to al-Qa'ida. The pirates have said they will fight to the death if the ship is boarded.

Reports of a shooting match between different factions aboard the cargo ship were denied by the hijackers, who used satellite phones to contact reporters and tell them that they were holding a feast for Eid, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month, Ramadan.

"We are happy on the ship and we are celebrating Eid," a spokesman for the pirates, who identified himself as Sugule Ali, told the Associated Press. "We are united as we were before and there was no fighting among us."

Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme had said three Somali pirates were killed on Monday night in a dispute over whether to surrender, but later admitted he had not spoken to witnesses.

The pirates blame overfishing by foreign trawlers for destroying their livelihoods, forcing them into hijacking ships and demanding ransoms.

The most dramatic seizure yet, with its lethal cargo, has underlined a surge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping routes. The problem has spread south to the Indian Ocean coastal waters off Somalia with 62 ships attacked this year. The International Maritime Board's piracy monitors say there are at least 10 vessels and 221 crew members held hostage in ports such as Eyl, east Somalia.

Pirates, many operating out of former fishing ports such as Eyl and Bosaso, are deploying increasingly sophisticated methods, including high speed launches, GPS trackers, and satellite communications, to target shipping. They have captured some of the biggest vessels on the seas and extracted multimillion-pound ransoms from multinational companies and even the government of Spain. France sent in special forces to track pirates who took a luxury yacht in April and captured six of them. They will face trial in France.

The London-based think-tank Chatham House says piracy could see shipping forced away from the Gulf and into the longer route to Europe and North America, producing a drastic effect on oil and commodities prices.

Photographs from the scene showed a number of smaller vessels with outboard motors alongside the much larger Faina. The ship's crew of 21 includes Ukrainians, Russians, and a Latvian. One member is said to have recently died of a heart attack.

The tanker was bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa but the government there has denied it had purchased the tanks. US diplomats said the military material was bound for the south of Sudan, where factions are believed to be re-arming ahead of what observers fear could be a resumption of the civil war between the Christian and animist south and the Arab-led government in Khartoum. Officials in the oil-rich south said they were "surprised" to hear the battle tanks were en route to them.

Somalia is already facing the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with 3.2 million in danger of starvation and aid groups forced to pull out after their operatives became targets for militants. Pirates have taken food shipments.

Somalia, which has Africa's longest coast, is in a state of anarchy, with no functioning government since 1991 and a civil war between a weak and unpopular transitional government, backed by Ethiopian forces, and an Islamic insurgency. A period of relative stability under the Islamic Courts – a loose alliance of clerics, militia and businessmen who displaced the warlords for six months in 2006 – was curtailed after Ethiopia invaded and reinstalled the interim government with tacit US backing. The Islamic insurgency has since pushed Ethiopia to the point of withdrawing. The administration has appealed for African Union and UN peacekeepers to fill the breach.

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