As a heavily armed U.S. destroyer patrolled nearby and planes flew overhead Sunday, a Somali pirate spokesman told The Associated Press his group was demanding a $20 million ransom to release a cargo ship loaded with Russian tanks.Wow.
The spokesman also warned that the pirates would fight to the death if any country tried military action to regain the ship, and a man who said he was the ship's captain reported that one crew member had died.
Pirates seized the Ukrainian-operated ship Faina off the coast of Somalia on Thursday as it headed to Kenya carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks and a substantial amount of ammunition and spare parts. The ordnance was ordered by the Kenyan government.
The guided missile destroyer USS Howard was stationed off the Somali coast on Sunday, making sure that the pirates did not remove the tanks, ammunition and other heavy weapons from the ship, which was anchored off the coast.
Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said he was speaking Sunday from the deck of the Faina via a satellite phone - and verified his location by handing the phone over to the ship's captain, who also spoke with the AP. It was not possible to further confirm their identities.
"We want ransom, nothing else. We need $20 million for the safe release of the ship and the crew," Ali said, adding that "if we are attacked, we will defend ourselves until the last one of us dies."
Pirate attacks worldwide have surged this year and Africa remains the world's top piracy hotspot, with 24 reported attacks in Somalia and 18 in Nigeria this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.
Attacking ships has become a regular source of income for pirates in Somalia, a war-torn country without a functioning government since 1991.
Christensen said the Faina was anchored off Somalia's coast near the central town of Hobyo.
"What's on board is of concern to us as much as the criminal activity," Christensen told the AP, adding that the Navy does not want the tanks and other weapons to end up "in the wrong hands."