Nairobi, Kenya U.S. helicopters on Monday buzzed a hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 Soviet-designed tanks and other weapons that officials fear could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia if the pirates are allowed to escape.
Thursday's seizure of the MV Faina off Somalia, a failed state seen as a key battleground in the war on terrorism, could bring dangerous effects across the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Piracy has become a lucrative criminal racket in impoverished Somalia, bringing in millions of dollars in ransom.
The pirates aboard the blue-and-white Ukrainian-operated freighter are demanding $20 million to release the ship, its 21 crew members, one of whom has died of an apparent heart attack, and its cargo of T-72 tanks, rifles and ammunition.
The ship, now anchored off Somalia's coast near the central town of Hobyo, apparently was destined for Sudan when armed pirates overtook it, likely from a speedboat, and climbed up the side of the ship.
"We maintain a vigilant watch over the ship and we will remain on station while negotiations between the pirates and the shipping company are going on," Lt. Nathan Christensen, a deputy spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, told The Associated Press.
Although the pirates have not been allowed to take anything off the Faina, they have been allowed to resupply, one U.S. official said when asked whether those aboard needed anything such as food. The official declined to comment on whether the negotiations between the pirates and the shipping company are being monitored.
U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers have been deployed within 10 miles of the hijacked vessel and helicopters were circling overhead because of "great concern" over the possibility of the cargo falling "into the wrong hands," Christensen said. At one point on Sunday, the captain of the Faina said a warship was about two miles away.
"Our goal is to ensure the safety of the crew, to not allow off-loading of dangerous cargo and to make certain Faina can return to legitimate shipping," said Rear Adm. Kendall Card, commander of the task force watching the ship.
Although analysts say the pirates will likely be unable to unload the tanks, the other military hardware or a huge ransom could exacerbate the two-decade-old civil war in a country where nearly every building is pockmarked with bullet holes and all major civil institutions have crumbled.
The U.S. fears the armaments may end up with al-Qaida-linked Islamic insurgents who have been fighting the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali transitional government since late 2006, when they were driven out after six months in power. More than 9,000 people have been killed in the Iraq-style insurgency, most of them civilians.
Mark Bellamy, senior fellow in the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the pirates "are more interested in the money than disposing of the cargo."