Somali Pirates' Unexpected Booty: Russian Tanks

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Pirates cruise the waters off the coast of Somalia in 2006

The pirates who seized a Ukrainian freighter on Friday may have netted one of their biggest prizes in more than 15 years of terrorizing the Somali coastline — the vessel was carrying 33 T-72 battle tanks to Kenya.

It appears almost certain that the pirates had no idea of the cargo aboard the Belize-flagged Faina, which Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuri Yekhanurov told the Interfax news agency was being sold to Kenya. He said the cargo included grenade launchers and ammunition. Hours after the hijacking, Russia announced it was sending a warship from its Baltic Fleet to patrol the Somali coast.

Attacks on cargo vessels along the Somali coast have spiked recently, with at least 14 ships and 300 crew members currently held by pirates in lawless Somalia, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB). But the seizure of the tanks also raises questions about their ultimate destination and purpose: The Kenya office of the Seafarers Assistance Programme said the ship had picked up its cargo of military equipment in the Baltic Sea and was sailing to Mombasa. Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua said his government had purchased the hardware. "The cargo in the ship includes military hardware such as tanks and an assortment of spare parts for use by different branches of the Kenyan military," he said in a statement.

A French intelligence official tells TIME that the hijackers probably had no clue about the Faina's cargo, and might find they "might get more than they'd bargained for" — and would probably try to ransom the shipment back to the freighter's owners. "They see a ship out there alone, consider the surrounding conditions favorable, and they move," the official explained. France has been closely involved in trying to beef up patrols in the Gulf, even introducing a resolution to the U.N. Security Council.

Experts believe that the pirates may not have the capacity to offload the cargo — and there may not be much local interest in tanks, anyway. They'd be quickly noticed in Somalia, and their destination would reveal the identity of anyone financing the hijackers.

It wouldn't be the first time that pirates in Somalia may have stumbled upon a cargo that was bigger than they could imagine. Last August, pirates seized the MV Iran Deyanat, a ship owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. Somali officials contend that the ship had been carrying weapons destined for Islamic insurgents, a claim denied by Tehran. Ironically, the activities of the pirates may be lifting the lid on the illicit trade in weapons around the Horn of Africa.

But for the pirates of Somalia, it was just another working day — the Faina was the third ship taken in the course of a week in an area about 200 miles off Mogadishu, suggesting an advanced detection capability on the part of the pirates. The Faina is a huge, well-protected vessel, underscoring both the audacity and capability of the buccaneers.

"It is an astonishing ship to take, and it defeats a number of the previously held conceptions that they'd go for slow-moving ships," James Wilkes, managing director of the London-based Gray Page Limited, a maritime consulting group in London, told TIME. "This ship is built like a castle; how they managed to make it stop, I don't know. I can imagine that they possibly laid quite a bit of weapon fire on the ship."

Some reports have tied the pirates to the Islamic insurgents battling the Ethiopian- and U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, but experts say no concrete evidence has emerged to back this claim. Wilkes and others say the hijackers are more likely simply in the increasingly lucrative business of demanding — and receiving — ransom payments from shipowners.

"If there was another alternative, the owners would not pay, but right now there is no alternative," says Cyrus Mody, a manager at the IMB. "Once the pirates are on board they are pretty much in control. The fact that the pirates are going to be paid a ransom obviously makes it that much more attractive and lucrative, especially in a country where there is no government, no law enforcement and no policing to address the situation."

The brazen attack was a reminder of the limits of the protection offered by the U.S.-led coalition of warships patrolling the Somali coast. In a statement issued Friday from Bahrain, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, explained that the patrols don't "have the resources to provide 24-hour protection" in waters between Somalia and Yemen. He urged private shipping companies to "take measures to defend their vessels and crews," which could include hiring security for their vessels.

—With reporting by Bruce Crumley/Paris

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