U.S. warships have surrounded the MV Faina, a Belize-registered ship that was hijacked by pirates off the lawless coast of Somalia last week.
While there's no gold or precious jewels onboard, this buccaneer's booty has the international community racing to intercept the boat before its cargo can be offloaded.
The Ukrainian-owned ship is carrying 33 Russian-made T-72 tanks, anti-aircraft guns, multiple-launch rocket systems and thousands of rounds of tank ammunition. Initial reports indicated the Ukrainian arms were destined for Kenya. But U.S. officials now say it appears they were to be shipped to Sudan, although it is unclear if they are headed to the central government in Khartoum or the government of Southern Sudan, which has purchased such tanks in the past.
The U.S. Navy has dispatched several destroyers and cruisers, as well as an amphibious ship with a complement of helicopters and Marines aboard, to ensure the hijacked arms don't fall into the hands of terrorists in the power vacuum of the Horn of Africa region, particularly in Somalia, where al Qaeda-linked groups operate.
"We are not going to allow the offload of the ship's cargo," warned Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which has sent ships to the scene.
The U.S. ships are stationed in a 10-mile radius around the hijacked vessel to prevent it from escaping.
"We are deeply concerned about the safety of the crew as well as the cargo onboard MV Faina," Christensen said, adding that the U.S. presence "represents the U.S. resolve to ensure safety and security in the region. Piracy is a problem that starts ashore and requires an international solution to this international problem."
A senior U.S. defense official says the American ships' main mission is to prevent the pirates aboard the freighter from being resupplied from shore. The MV Faina is anchored off the Somali port of Hoybyo, along with two other freighters that had been hijacked by pirates previously.
Also of immediate concern is the well-being of the ship's crew of Ukrainians, Latvians and Russians, totaling 21. A Russian crewman is reported to have died from hypertension. A Russian naval ship is also on its way to the scene from the Baltic and is estimated to arrive off Somalia in a week, at the earliest.
The U.S. Navy says it has had no coordination with the Russians on the matter.
"The Russians, I believe, are trying to lend their support," State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood told reporters today, declining to comment further.
The modern-day swashbucklers were armed with automatic weapons when they boarded the ship Thursday. They are demanding a $20 million ransom for return of the cargo, down from an initial demand of $35 million.
The region off the coast of Somalia is well-known for pirate activity where cargo ships are regularly hijacked for ransom. Indeed, the number of vessels hijacked this year, and the ransoms demanded for their safe return, have risen dramatically.
Through June, 22 ships had been hijacked by pirates off the Somali coast in 2008, according to the most recent data from the International Maritime Organization. Experts say the number has increased exponentially since then, putting the number as high as 60 to date -- almost double the number hijacked in all of 2007.
"We are seeing something different," said Donna Nincic, chairwoman of the Department of Global and Maritime Studies at the California Maritime Academy at the California State University in Vallejo.
"We've seen piracy in Somalia fluctuate over the past seven or eight years, from almost nothing in the early 2000s, and then big jumps in 2005," Nincic said.
Nincic said that at that time the pirates, who originally were disgruntled fisherman wanting to chase poachers out of Somali fishing waters, became more organized and possibly banded with warlords operating on land. After a drop in piracy in 2006, when the Islamic Courts Union took power, piracy again surged in 2007 after a U.S. and Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government ousted the courts union but then did little to curb piracy.
"What's also different is the frequency of ransom in these hijackings," Nincic said. "At the beginning of 2008, the average ransom was about half a million dollars. Then a million, then this summer it was 1.5 to 2 million."
The State Department has warned Americans about the dangers of pirates near Somalia. "U.S. citizens are also urged to use extreme caution when sailing near the coast of Somalia," an official travel warning issued last May said. "Merchant vessels, fishing boats and recreational craft all risk seizure by pirates and having their crews held for ransom in the waters off the Horn of Africa, most especially in the international waters near Somalia.
"There have been numerous such incidents, highlighting the continuing danger of maritime travel near the Horn of Africa," the warning continued. "If transit around the Horn of Africa is necessary, it is strongly recommended that vessels travel in convoys, and maintain good communications contact at all times."