The saga over the Ukrainian arms freighter hijacked off Somalia’s coast more than four months ago drew to a close on Thursday almost exactly the way the pirates had predicted: with the booty.
According to the pirates and maritime officials in Kenya, the ship’s owners paid $3.2 million — in cash, dropped by parachute — and on Thursday evening the last of the heavily armed pirates made their way off the ship.
“The fact that this took so long, that’s not good,” said one of the pirates, Isse Mohammed, in a telephone interview. “But we got the cash in hand, and that’s good. That’s what we’re interested in.”
Isse added that his gang would continue “hunting ships” because “that’s our business.”
But first, Isse said, he had to escape. Ever since the Ukrainian ship was hijacked by Somali pirates in dinghies, it had been ringed by American warships determined to keep the pirates from unloading the weapons.
Isse said that the pirate leaders were divvying up the money in Xarardheere, a notorious pirate den near the ship’s anchorage, and that he and his colleagues had deputized young gunmen to stay aboard until all the pirate leaders had gotten away. Only then, he said, would the ship be released.
Late Thursday night, Viktor Nikolsky, the captain of the ship, called the Faina, said that it was finally under the protection of the U.S. Navy and would head to Mombasa, Kenya, the Associated Press reported.
More than 100 ships have been attacked in Somalia’s pirate-infested seas in the past year, but no hijacking has attracted as much attention as this one. It stirred fears of a new epoch of piracy and precipitated an unprecedented naval response. Warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain and Germany have all joined the anti-piracy campaign.
The Ukrainians’ doomed voyage began in late August, when the Faina departed the Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk, near the Black Sea, bound for Mombasa, on Kenya’s coast. It was a tall, lumbering freighter, painted blue and white. Its captain was Russian and its 21 crew members were mostly Ukrainian, with two other Russians and a Latvian. Its cargo was secret. On Sept. 25, the Faina broadcast an SOS. Three small speedboats were heading straight at it fast — the typical pirate swarm.
On Sept. 26, the news broke: The Faina had been hijacked 200 miles off Somalia’s coast and its cargo, revealed reluctantly by the Kenyan government, included 33 T-72 Soviet-era tanks, 150 grenade launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and heaps of ammunition.
American officials worried that Islamist insurgents ashore could get the weapons and drastically change the dynamic in Somalia, where a weak transitional government has been trying to resist militant Islamist groups.
By Thursday night, U.S. Navy officials said no weapons had been unloaded. But witnesses ashore reported pirates removing grenade launchers. Isse said the pirates had tossed some antiaircraft guns overboard “so we can get them later.” He seemed unaware of saltwater’s corrosive effects.