MOGADISHU, Somalia – Foreign powers can use force if necessary to free a hijacked cargo ship loaded with battle tanks and heavy ammunition, Somalia's foreign ministry declared Wednesday — increasing pressure on the Somali pirates who have demanded a $20 million ransom.
Last week's hijacking of the Ukrainian ship MV Faina — carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, rifles, and heavy weapons that U.S. defense officials say included rocket launchers — was the highest profile act of piracy this year in the dangerous waters off Somalia.
Mohamed Jama Ali, the ministry's acting permanent director, said his country granted its permission to use force on the condition that foreign powers coordinate their actions with Somali government officials beforehand.
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"The international community has permission to fight with the pirates," Ali told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Ali also reported that negotiations were taking place by telephone Wednesday between the ship's Ukrainian owners and the pirates, and said no other parties were involved.
Ukrainian news agencies say the ship's operator is Tomex Team, based in the Black Sea port of Odessa.
The U.S. Navy says it wants to keep large arms cache on the Faina out of the hands of militants linked to al-Qaida in impoverished Somalia, a key battleground in the war on terrorism. The militants who have been waging an insurgency against the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali transitional government since late 2006. More than 9,000 people have been killed in the Iraq-style insurgency.
To that end, it has surrounded the Faina, anchored off the central Somali town of Hobyo, with half a dozen ships, including USS guided missile destroyer USS Howard, which has sophisticated weapons and monitoring equipment.
A spokesman for the U.S. 5th fleet in Manama, Bahrain, the control point for the USS Howard, said Wednesday "while our ships remain on station in the area, we are not participating in negotiations between the pirates and the ship owners."
The U.S. warships are not allowing the pirates to take any weapons off the seized ship but have allowed them to resupply with food and water for the Faina's crew members. The ship had 21 crew, mostly Ukrainians, when it was hijacked Sept. 25 but the captain has reportedly died.
American military officials and diplomats say the weapons are destined for southern Sudan, but Kenyan officials insist the weapons are bound for their country.
Moscow also has dispatched a warship to the scene, saying it must protect the lives of the Russians aboard the captive vessel, even though there are only a few Russians among the crew.
The Russian guided missile frigate Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, is not expected to reach the Somali coast for several days. However, the state-owned Russian news agency RIA-Novosti, quoting a high-level Navy official, says the frigate is carrying marines and special forces commandoes.
Russia has used force in the past to end several hostage situations — sometimes disastrously, as in the 2004 storming of a school in Beslan, which resulted in 333 deaths, nearly half of them children.
"We will be happy to work with them once they arrive, it's partly their crew and their cargo aboard," Lt. Stephanie Murdock, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman, told The Associated Press over the phone from Bahrain.
Murdock said the Navy had not had any contact with the Russians yet, but indicated that "will change once they arrive here."
In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to comment on any possible military operations but said the U.S. was continuing to monitor the situation and remains concerned that the cargo not fall into the wrong hands.
In June, an unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution gave foreign nations' ships permission to enter Somalia's territorial waters to stop "piracy and armed robbery at sea" if their actions were taken in cooperation with Mogadishu's government.
However, Ali said he was giving new permission Wednesday to act on land or sea.
In the past, the U.S. military has launched air strikes in Somalia and has secretly sent special forces into Somalia to go after militants linked to al-Qaida.
Whitman would not give details of any new or existing agreement the United States has with the Somali government.
"(The U.S.) works closely with its partners in the region to identify, locate, capture and if necessary kill terrorists where they operate, plan their operations or seek save harbor," he said.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the pirates denied reports of a shootout on the ship or disagreements between the pirates, saying they were celebrating the Islamic holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
"We are happy on the ship and we are celebrating (Eid al-Fitr)," spokesman Sugule Ali told the AP by satellite telephone. "We didn't dispute over a single thing, let alone have a shootout."
On Wednesday, his phone rang and rang but no one picked it up.
U.S. officials say 40-50 pirates are involved in Faina hijacking, but only about 30 are on the ship itself.
Piracy is a lucrative criminal racket in the region, bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year. There have been 24 reported attacks in Somalia this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Most pirate attacks occur in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, north of Somalia. But recently pirates have been targeting Indian Ocean waters off eastern Somalia.
International warships patrol the area and have created a special security corridor under a U.S.-led initiative, but attacks have not abated.