US Navy ships Monday surrounded a ship seized by Somali pirates carrying tanks and other weapons, amid confusion about the cargo's destination and reports the ship's captain had died.
A handout photo provided by the US Navy shows the pirated Greek vessel MV Centauri September 29, 2008 as observed by the guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf (CG 72). The tanker was hijacked on September 26, while it was on its way to the Middle East from Europe.
US Navy ships kept watch as pirates moored the MV Faina off Somalia's Indian Ocean coast in perhaps their most audacious coup in close to 60 hijackings this year. They have demanded a 20-million-dollar (14-million-euro) ransom for its release.
The US Navy said the destroyer USS Howard "is in visual range of MV Faina, which is anchored off the Somalia coast near the harbour city of Hobyo."
"My crew is actively monitoring the situation, keeping constant watch on the vessel and the waters in the immediate vicinity," the ship's commanding officer, Curtis Goodnight, said in a statement.
In a second statement, the US Navy command said several ships were now in the area to support the USS Howard.
"We will maintain a vigilant watch over the ship and remain on station while negotiations take place," the navy's Bahrain-based command for the region said. "Our goal is to ensure the safety of the crew, to not allow offloading of dangerous cargo."
The US Navy also issued a photo showing the pirates conducting resupply to the ship while under its observation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed the US navy was shadowing the ship while a Russian warship and two Malaysian vessels were heading to Somali waters.
"The EU would also send its ships," Lavrov said at a press conference in New York which was televised live in Moscow.
The Russian navy said Saturday it had dispatched a warship, the Neustrashimy (Fearless), to the region.
The ship's crew of 21 consists of Ukrainians, Russians and Latvians but the ship's captain died of an illness on board, according to Russian media.
A spokesman for the pirates told AFP via satellite phone that the MV Faina and its crew would be released if a ransom was paid -- a prospect that seems uncertain.
"What we are awaiting eagerly is the 20 million dollars, nothing less, nothing more," Sugule Ali said, apparently lowering the ransom from an earlier reported figure of 35 million dollars.
Meanwhile, reports conflicted over just where the Faina had been heading.
When the Belize-flagged ship was seized last week, the Kenyan government said it was the owner of the arms shipment, which it said was part of a deal with Ukraine.
The US Navy claimed that the cargo of 33 Soviet-type T-72 tanks and other military supplies was ultimately destined for Khartoum.
"We have a report indicating that the cargo and the shipment was headed to Sudan," said Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet.
Both Kiev and Nairobi have denied Washington's claim, as did a Sudanese army spokesman.
"The Kenyan and Ukrainian governments have all the documents to prove that this cargo belongs to the Kenyan government and not some unknown buyers in Sudan," Kenyan defence ministry spokesman Bogita Ongeri told AFP.
"I really doubt whether the US has the right information. And I don't think that the US Navy has the jurisdiction to talk about this issue," he added.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates have carried out at least 56 successful attacks on foreign ships since the start of the year, 13 of which are still being held.
Piracy along Somalia's long, unpatrolled coastline on the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden started years ago as an effort to deter foreign fishing boats depleting the country's maritime resources.
It has bloomed into a well-organised industry, with pirates armed to the teeth targeting anything from yachts to huge merchant vessels and demanding huge ransoms.
Somalia's northeastern tip juts out into the Indian Ocean and commands access to the Gulf of Aden, a key international maritime route leading to the Suez Canal and through which an estimated 30 percent of the world's oil transits.