A Russian battleship is on its way to Africa to help the crew of a ship seized by pirates off the Somali coast on Thursday. Three Russians, seventeen Ukrainians and a Latvian are being held hostage. The ship contains more than 30 battle tanks which Ukraine had sold to Kenya.
The pirates have initially demanded a ransom of $US35 million, reportedly lowering their demands to $US5 million.
The incident has raised questions in some quarters over the legitimacy of Ukraine's arms trade.
The Ukranian ship Faina, manned by 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and a Latvian, was sailing to Kenya before it was seized by armed bandits. On board were 33 T-72 tanks.
“Our fear is that within the tanks we understand there are some small arms. Maybe they can use the small arms because small arms in Somalia is a big business,” says Andrew Mwangura of Kenya's Seafarers Assistance Programme.
“We can say that the situation is cool and calm and according to them they wanted to know if there would be no military,” expert Mikhail Voitenko said before adding:
“The information that we got this morning is that they are demanding 35 million dollars but that will come down to five or maybe two million.”
Moscow has sent the battleship Fearless to the African coast. Its aim is to rescue the detained crew and to ensure the future safety of the Russians there.
The Ukrainian defense minister confirmed that the tanks were on their way to Kenya in an official deal between Kiev and Nairobi.
Rada deputy Valery Konovaluk says the number of illegal arms trade deals from Ukraine has increased in the last several years.
And for him, the details of this story do not quite add up.
"We know that there was an official contract, but strangely enough prices vary for the very same items sold to different states. We believe that large sums evade contracts and don’t reach the defense ministry to stay in somebody’s pockets. And the investigation into this incident I believe will reveal a lot - in particular if there was anything else on the vessel apart from tanks," says Konovaluk.
The incident comes only a month after the legitimacy of Ukraine’s weapon sales to Georgia was making waves among Kiev’s political circles, during Russia’s military action in South Ossetia.
Ukrainian politicians are drawing comparisons between the events in African waters and those in the Caucasus.
Politicians in Ukraine believe that this piracy incident may in fact help the country as it’s not the first case of illegal arms trading. Ukraine’s Rada has launched several investigations into similar cases. But for now, rescuing the 17 crew members remains a top priority.