The U.S. Navy bolstered its force of warships off Somalia on Monday, intensifying its watch over Somali pirates holding a hijacked Ukrainian-operated vessel with crew members, arms and tanks aboard.
Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet, said "there are now several U.S. ships" within eyesight of the hijacked ship, Faina, which according to the Kenyan government was bound for Kenya when it was seized last week. The pirates are negotiating for ransom with the vessel's owner.
Speaking by telephone from Bahrain, Christensen declined to say how exactly many other U.S. warships had joined the USS Howard, a guided-missile destroyer, off Somalia. The U.S. ships were staying in international waters off Somalia, Christensen said, while the Somali pirates kept the Faina within the 12-mile territorial bounds of Somali waters.
U.S. sailors remained close enough to see the ship and had established bridge-to-bridge contact via radio, he said.
Somali pirates hijacked the Faina on Thursday, seizing its 21 Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian crew members and an arms cargo that included 33 T-72 tanks. Kenya said the tanks and weapons were for its military. Pirates have anchored the hijacked vessel a few miles off the Somali town of Hobyo.
The U.S. Navy intends to maintain "a vigilant, visual watch of the ship" to make sure pirates don't try to unload the tanks, ammunition and other arms aboard, Christensen said.
"We're deeply concerned about the cargo and we don't want it to go into the wrong hands," he said.
Russia has said it is sending a warship as well.
Radio France International said Monday it had spoken, apparently by cellphone, with a pirate aboard the Faina, who said at least three warships were near the hijacked ship.
"Ships and troops have surrounded us," said a man identified by RFI as pirate Sugule Ali. He spoke in Somali. "There's a lot of unusual movement surrounding us and planes are flying overhead. I warn anyone who might be tempted by any military operation or use of force, if we're attacked, we'll defend ourselves, until the last one of us dies."
The man repeated a demand for $20 million in ransom, as well as the release of the ship and the crew.
Somali news media reported over the weekend that one of the hostage crew members had died. Pirates told local elders that the man died of problems related to high blood pressure, according to the Somali news reports.