MOGADISHU — US Navy ships and helicopters on Tuesday circled a hijacked Ukrainian freighter carrying Russian battle tanks and arms while talks were held with pirates off the Somali coast.
Some reports said the pirates had fought among themselves amid mounting tension as a maritime siege involving two of the world's greatest naval powers intensifies.
The Pentagon later suggested it could wait days for a Russian warship to arrive with the emphasis on ensuring a "peaceful resolution."
The pirates have taken the Belize-registered MV Faina to their lair off Somalia's Indian Ocean coast and are demanding a 20-million-dollar (14-million-euro) ransom after its seizure last Thursday.
"We are still surrounded by foreign ships. There is 24-hour surveillance, helicopters are flying overhead, but no action has been taken against us," the pirates' spokesman Sugule Ali said over satellite telephone from the ship.
"We are prepared for any eventuality," he warned.
Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Kenya chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Programme, said three pirates were killed during a shootout after a disagreement on what to with the ship.
"The pirates are paranoid, the situation is very tense in the ship. That is why we are asking the naval ships to pull back and pave the way for negotiations," Mwangura told AFP.
But the pirates denied there had been any fighting or deaths. "We are united as we were before and there was no fighting that took place among us," the spokesman told AFP, calling the claims "propaganda."
The Bahrain-based US Navy Fifth Fleet said several ships and helicopters were in the area to support the destroyer USS Howard as it observed its target, now docked and re-supplied at the Somali port village of Hobyo.
"The situation on the Ukrainian ship is different today. There are negotiations going on between the pirates and the foreign ships," said Abdikadir Musa Yusuf, deputy seaports minister for the Somali breakaway region of Puntland.
"The pirates agreed not to offload the shipment and were in return given an opportunity to demand whatever they needed," he told AFP.
The Pentagon said it wanted a peaceful resolution and said US warships were there to make sure pirates do not make off with its Russian military cargo.
"We clearly have a number of navy vessels, warships, if you will, in the vicinity, which have enormous capabilities on them," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.
"But at this point, what we are most concerned about is seeing a peaceful solution to this problem," he said.
Morrell said it was expected to take several days for the Russian ship to arrive, and added that Washington had no "issue" with its arrival as the siege "involves Russian cargo, as I understand it."
Morrell said the US Navy was not negotiating with the pirates, and he did not know who was. But he said the payment of a ransom was not a major concern.
He said US concern was "that this cargo does not end up in the hands of anyone who would use it in a way that would be destabilising to the region."
There are 21 Ukrainians, Russians and Latvians in the crew. The ship's captain died of an illness on board, according to Russian media.
"We are sticking to the demand for 20 million dollars. This is not ransom, but a fine for unlawfully transporting weapons on Somali waters," Ali said.
The pirates said the arms were headed for Sudan. The Ukrainian owners of the freighter and Kenyan government said the tanks were destined for Kenya.
Piracy is rife where Somalia's northeastern tip juts out into the Indian Ocean, with an organised industry surveying spoils in the Gulf of Aden, a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which an estimated 30 percent of the world's oil transits.
Copyright 2008 AFP