All branches of the Kenyan Armed Forces were on full alert on Sunday night and heading for a showdown with the pirates who seized a cargo ship carrying battle tanks for the army.
The Navy put to sea and was racing to take up position in a joint operation to recover the hijacked Ukrainian cargo vessel, which was also carrying arms and ammunition.
“All branches of the military are working with partners to solve the problem,” said a senior government official, who did not wish to be quoted discussing an ongoing, security operation.
The official would not say which units were involved and what actions they were taking.
The Forces were ordered into action even as a heavily armed Russian warship entered Somalia waters and was preparing to rescue the crew of 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and a Latvian aboard the hijacked ship, the MV Faina.
A United States warship was also in the area and said by Pentagon officials to be tracking both the Faina and the Russian missile frigate, the Neustrashimy.
Government spokesperson Alfred Mutua said that the government, together with its security partners, had by Saturday evening established that the ship had not yet docked at any port.
“The government does not and will not negotiate with international criminals, pirates and terrorists and will endeavour to recover the hijacked ship and military cargo,” Mr Mutua said in a statement posted on his website.
But the rescue mission was fraught with danger.
For as well as the 33 T-72 tanks, the Faina was carrying huge quantities of ammunition and grenade launchers for the Kenyan forces, making it a floating ammunition dump.
Any firefight could result in a massive explosion that would blow the freighter out of the water, killing the very people they were trying to rescue.
And if Russian commandos attempted to storm the Faina — a Ukrainian ship sailing under a Belize flag — it was feared the pirates would use the crew as human shields.
It was believed as many as 100 pirates from the self-styled Somalia Youth Coastguard were in control of the Faina.
They struck 200 miles off the Somalia coast in three speedboats launched from a mother ship, on Thursday.
Racing to incept the seized vessel, the Neustrashimy — it means Dauntless — is armed with surface-to-air missiles, 100-millimeter guns and anti-submarine torpedoes.
A Somalia Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Faysal Ahmed told the Sunday Nation that he suspected that the hijackers were working in concert with Al Shabaab, a terrorist group that has been linked with Al Qaeda.
“I have heard a spokesman for the hijackers on BBC Somalia service say that if they don’t get the $35 million ransom they are demanding, they will release the tanks and the retain the guns and ammunition,” Mr Ahmed said.
“If they get the weapons, they will be very dangerous not only for Somalia but for the whole East African region.”
Mr Ahmed said the Somalia government had not capacity to stop the pirates and had frequently requested help from other governments and the UN Security Council and obtained promises on help with policing the Somalia coastline waters but no action.
The Kenya Navy was ordered into action by Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, who acts as commander in chief in the absence of President Kibaki, who is currently in New York.
In Nairobi, Mr Musyoka described as “disastrous” and “unimaginable” the extent of damage that could be caused by the seized arsenal should it fall into terrorist hands.
But Mr Musyoka said the Government had not received any ransom demand, in spite of earlier reports that the pirates were seeking a staggering $35 million (Sh2.38 billion) ransom for the vessel, its crew and its cargo which was itself valued at $30 million (Sh2.04 billion).
That figure was given by Mr Andrew Mwangura of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, which monitors the activities of the pirates.
However Mr Musyoka confirmed on Saturday night: “We are yet to receive a demand for ransom.”
He went on: “I’m confident that the pirates will be caught but this is obviously a good reason to step up efforts towards stabilizing Somalia.”
And the VP continued: “The first assignment is to dispossess of the items since it is unimaginable to think of what they might do. The Kenya Navy has also been committed in the operation to dispossess the pirates of the goods.”
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua admitted: “This is a big loss for us,” but he added since the ship had not reached Kenya, the cargo was still the Ukrainians’ responsibility.
Kenya’s military said they had not yet made contact with the pirates, who had however issued a general warning against any rescue attempts.
But top officials were cautious in their handling of what they termed a complex issue, saying it could have implications for the situation inside Somalia and by extension Kenya.
So far Kenya has succeeded in ensuring that the lawlessness in Somalia does not spill over across the border and officials said they were concerned that a “gung-ho” approach to the piracy situation could unsettle delicate security arrangements.
“This is really getting out of control,” said Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya. “You see how many countries are involved now? These pirates aren’t going to get away with this.”
And he went on: “This is not a Somali problem. This is an international problem. Shipping across this entire region is imperiled by this.”
The haul is a significant seizure in Somalia, where Islamist insurgents have been fighting the government and its Ethiopian military ally for nearly two years.
But each Soviet-designed T-72 tank weighs more than 40 tonnes and the pirates would need special know-how and equipment, to unload them — assuming, of course, that they will make it to port with warships on their tail.
Somalia’s pirates hide their captured ships in isolated coves, ferrying people and the cargo back and forth in dinghies, which could not possibly carry the tanks.
This year is one of the worst on record for pirate raids with 56 ships attacked, 26 hijacked and at least 14 currently being held.
The waters off Somalia are now considered the most dangerous in the world.