US says 3 on pirated ship may be dead after squabble
MOGADISHU, Somalia - Disagreements between Somali pirates holding a ship laden with tanks and heavy weapons escalated into a shootout and three pirates are believed dead, a US defense official said yesterday. The pirates denied the report.
The US destroyer USS Howard and several other US ships have surrounded the Ukrainian cargo ship Faina, which was hijacked Thursday and is now anchored off the coast of Somalia. The pirates have demanded a ransom of $20 million, and a US Navy cordon aims to prevent them from taking any of the weapons ashore.
The official in Washington who reported the shootout spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. He declined to elaborate and said he had no way of confirming the deaths.
But the pirate spokesman insisted the report was not true, that his colleagues were just celebrating the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr despite being surrounded by warships and helicopters.
"We didn't dispute over a single thing, let alone have a shootout," pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said by phone yesterday.
"We are happy on the ship and we are celebrating Eid," Ali said. "Nothing has changed." The Islamic feast marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Earlier yesterday, Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program cited an unconfirmed report saying three Somali pirates were killed Monday night in a dispute over whether to surrender. Mwangura said he had not spoken to any witnesses, however.
Elsewhere in Somalia, pirates freed a Malaysian tanker yesterday after a ransom was paid, according to a shipping company.
The Faina has been buzzed by US helicopters since Sunday. Pirates hijacked the Faina and its cargo of 33 Soviet-designed tanks and weapons while the ship was passing through the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, en route to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
Ali said the vessel was surrounded by four warships, but he could not identify where the ships were from. The San Diego-based USS Howard, a guided-missile destroyer, has been watching the pirate ship for several days and has spoken to the pirates and crew by radio.
The US defense official in Washington said the pirates have been moving from ship to shore and back again, bringing provisions.
He said 40 to 50 pirates were involved in the hijacking, but a second US official said only about 30 were on the ship.
US naval officials said Monday that several other US ships had joined the watch, but declined to give details.
Officials said they have allowed the pirates to resupply the ship with food and water, but not to unload military cargo.