The Somali Pirates: Tanks, but No Tanks

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US Navy / AP

A U.S. Navy photo of the pirates who have seized the Ukrainian merchant vessel MV Faina

The Somali pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian ship with 33 battle tanks aboard have lowered their ransom demand and say they are eager to negotiate, raising hope that the two-week standoff over the MV Faina will be resolved in a few days. If they're true to their word and the ship is released, the pirates will disappear back into the stew of Somalia and wait for their next opportunity.

Once that happens, however, the question will arise: What to do about those tanks? There is mounting evidence from U.S. officials and other experts that the tanks aboard the Faina were not destined for Kenya, as both the Kenyan government and the tank's Ukrainian shippers claim, but for South Sudan, the autonomous oil-rich region of Sudan, which has a fractious relationship with the central government in Khartoum. If the standoff is resolved, will the three American warships encircling the Faina just clear a path and allow it to proceed?

The U.S. Navy says its primary concerns are making sure the crew is safe and that the armaments don't fall into the wrong hands — that is, those of the Islamic insurgents who have made Somalia ungovernable. It may simply be a matter of national priorities. As long as the insurgents don't get any of the weapons, the U.S. Navy will look the other way. "I certainly won't speculate on where they might end up," 5th Fleet spokesman Lieutenant Nathan Christensen says. "We want this to end as peacefully as possible."

Christensen himself told reporters early in the crisis that South Sudan was the destination. Though he later backed off that claim, Western diplomats have told TIME on condition of anonymity that those suspicions are probably true. On Tuesday, the BBC published a document that it said was the Faina's freight manifest. The contract number on the manifest includes the initials MOD/GOSS — the initials for Ministry of Defense/Government of South Sudan.

The Kenyan government contested that interpretation, saying GOSS stood for General Ordinance and Security Supplies — a division of the Kenyan Defense Ministry. But a South Sudanese government adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity on Thursday, rejected that notion. The adviser, a former fighter with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), told TIME that Kenya had agreed long ago to facilitate such arms deals for South Sudan. "I know they belong to us, to South Sudan," the adviser said in a telephone interview. "There was a deal between the SPLA and the Kenyan government that they facilitate everything. The destination is simple — they were going to South Sudan."

If that's indeed the case, that the tanks are meant for South Sudan, then it's possible the parties involved are violating the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the historic 2005 deal that ended Sudan's 21-year civil war. According to the CPA, neither North nor South Sudan is allowed to rearm in the period before a 2011 referendum is held on South Sudanese independence — unless they have express permission from a Joint Defense Board, which is then obligated to inform the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan. A spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Sudan tells TIME that the mission has received no such information about the tanks.

Without definitive proof, there may be no choice but to let the Faina go. The shipping manifest quoted by the BBC is ambiguous at best — and does say that the consignee is Kenya's Ministry of Defense. "After a ship is released, what normally happens is, the ship is taken and debriefed by the warships that are closest to it," says Roger Middleton, the Africa Program consultant at the Chatham House think tank. "I'm pretty sure that whatever happens, they're going to be escorted for the rest of their journey. But the thing is that if these have been bought legally, I don't know that there's a lot anybody can do to keep them from reaching their destination."

The stakes of the negotiations rose significantly on Wednesday, when the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing governments to use all necessary measures to combat piracy. That would presumably include the use of force. Now the warships guarding the Faina must calculate whether such a raid, which would put the lives of the 20 hostages aboard the ship at risk, is worth a potential catastrophe. "If they attack us, we will defend ourselves and the situation will worsen. We will fight until only a drop of blood is left in our bodies," Sugule Ali, the pirate spokesman, tells TIME from the deck of the Faina. "We believe that humans die once. They have weapons, and we also have weapons."

Because of the scrutiny the ship has been under, Kenya may ultimately have to take responsibility for the tanks and keep them, diplomats say. Proof that the tanks are headed for South Sudan would be a major embarrassment for Kenya, which not only helped broker the CPA but was one of the seven co-sponsors of a U.N. resolution that demanded a binding Global Arms Trade treaty, which would bring more transparency to the worldwide shipping of weapons. In reports to the U.N. over the past several years, Kenya has claimed no imports or exports, even though in 2007 Ukraine said it was shipping 77 battle tanks — exactly the number found aboard the Faina — to Kenya.

One diplomatic source tells TIME that the most likely scenario would be for the tanks to simply turn around and return to Ukraine. "Everybody will be following where the tanks go now that this cargo has the spotlight on it," the source says. "I just have to assume that the cargo will have to go back, and they'll have to act like it never happened. I don't think now it's politically possible for South Sudan to take them." So far, Kenya has not produced what would be the conclusive document: an end-user certificate, which would show whether it was keeping the tanks for itself or re-exporting them to Sudan. It is legally bound to report to Ukraine if it is turning around and selling the arms.

If the Faina is let go, the only chance of learning what really happened may be in Ukraine. After enduring severe criticism for arming all sides in various African conflicts with Soviet-era weapons from its stockpiles, Ukraine, experts say, is cleaning up its act and taking a far greater interest in the ultimate destination of its weapons. "The Ukrainians are keen on parliamentary commissions on illegal arms transfers at the moment," says Paul Holtom, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's Arms Transfers Project. "One would hope the Ukrainians would follow up."