MOSCOW – Somali pirates have agreed on a ransom for a Ukrainian freighter carrying tanks and other heavy weapons and it could be released within days, a spokesman said Sunday.
Mikhail Voitenko said the MV Faina could be freed with its crew if agreement is reached on how to get the ransom money to the pirates, who seized the ship off the coast of Somalia in late September. He said there were negotiations on Friday.
"The owner has confirmed there is every reason to hope that it will be released in the coming week," said Voitenko, editor of Maritime Bulletin-Sovfrakht, a shipping news Web site.
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He said he is acting as spokesman for the Faina's owner, Vadim Alperin. A man who answered the phone at Ukraine-based Tomex Team, the ship's technical manager, confirmed that Voitenko was the owner's spokesman. The man refused to give his name.
Pirate attacks off Somalia have surged more than 75 percent this year, and the seizure of the Faina raised particular concern because of its cargo of 33 tanks and other weapons and ammunition. Its Russian captain died days after the hijacking, and the ship and its 20-member crew are still being held off Somalia.
Russia sent a missile destroyer to the region after the hijacking to protect other cargo vessels, and the Faina has been watched by U.S. and other warships to prevent the removal of its cargo, which authorities fear could get into the hands of Somali factions or be sold.
Voitenko would not give the amount of the agreed ransom, but suggested it was far lower than the pirates' initial $20 million demand. He said the average ransom for ships hijacked in the region in recent months was $1.5 million to $1.8 million and that the latest public demand he was aware of for the Faina was $3 million.
A successful release of the ship and its cargo and crew would signal to pirates that they cannot expect to sell or receive higher ransoms for valuable cargoes, Voitenko said. Somali pirates seized the Sirius Star, a Saudi tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil, on Nov. 15.
Voitenko said the Faina's hijackers may be seeking a guarantee that they will not be attacked at sea or on shore after releasing the ship. He said a British-based company is conducting the negotiations, but would not reveal its name.
Piracy is considered the biggest moneymaker in Somalia, which has had no stable government for decades. A report last month by the London-based think tank Chatham House said pirates raked in up to $30 million in ransoms this year alone.
The seizure of the Faina and its cargo of weapons prompted a reinforcement of warships patrolling the waters off Somalia. Along with a Russian frigate and Indian vessels, a NATO flotilla of seven ships is in the Gulf of Aden to help the U.S. 5th Fleet in anti-piracy patrols and to escort cargo vessels.
U.S. officials have said the ship was headed for Sudan, not Kenya, which had said it was the destination.
The 5th Fleet said it has repelled about two dozen pirate attacks since Aug. 22 in the gulf.
Russia says its warship, the Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, has helped thwart at least two pirate attacks.
Another multinational fleet currently led by the Dutch has carved out a protected lane through the Gulf of Aden, through which 20,000 tankers, freighters and merchant vessels transit every year, entering and exiting the Suez Canal.