An American businesswoman with connections to U.S. intelligence and the military has been talking with the Somali pirates who have commandeered the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, trying to get the ship released, ABC News has confirmed.
First reported by Military.com, the pirates, who have halted all talks with the ship's owners, are talking to a woman named Michele Lynn Ballarin, instead.
Frustrated with the pirates, a senior government official told ABC News, "It's pretty sad when a horse country socialite has more sway in Somalia than the whole U.S. government."
Ballarin's eventual goal is to turn Somalia from a failed state into a functioning one, according to a business colleague.
"Michele Ballarin has gone over there for five years on her own, built a network of clan and sub-clan leaders in every region of the country," Ross Newland, a business colleague of Ballarin's, told ABC News Wednesday.
Ballarin, who has traveled to Somalia many times, returned just last week from a two-week trip to the troubled country, Newland said. Her travels coincided with the recent spate of pirate attacks off the Somali coast.
Newland said she told leaders of Somali clans, "you have to unwind this," and said she is talking to the pirates who seized the two largest ships that were taken, Sirius Star and MV Faina, reasoning that once those situations get resolved, others will follow.
Amid a slew of pirate attacks this season off the Somali coast, the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star was hijacked by pirates Nov. 15. The Ukrainian vessel MV Faina, carrying weapons and Russian-made T-72 tanks, was hijacked by pirates in September.
"My goal is to unwind all 17 ships and all 450 people they've been holding," Ballarin told Military.com.
According to Newland, the American businesswoman is greeted like royalty in Somalia, adding that the Somalis like her because she identifies their needs and comes up with solutions so they can support themselves. She is reportedly known in Somalia as Amira, or "Princess" in Arabic.
Newland said Ballarin has talked to the Somalis about being responsible for their own security and being their own coast guard.