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Threat to weapons in hijacked ship drama

Monday October 27 2008

By DOMINIC WABALA and AGENCIES

Weapons in the Ukrainian ship hijacked in Somalia waters risk being dumped at sea after the ship owners offered to pay ransom for the vessel and its crew.

The owners, Tomex Team, reportedly told the pirates that they were free to do whatever they wanted with the tanks and other weapons worth Sh2.6 billion ($35 million).

According to reports, the message said the pirates were at “liberty to destroy or throw the weapons into the sea” if they deemed it fit.

Diplomatic row

The weapons have been at the centre of a diplomatic row with Government spokesman Alfred Mutua saying that they belonged to Kenya.

However, there have been claims that the weapons actually belong to the Government of Southern Sudan since shipping documents indicated that the cargo would be delivered to GOSS.

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Foreign minister Moses Wetang’ula has since said that the acronym was a codeword for the Kenyan military.

A group of Ukrainian MPs was in Kenya recently to investigate the claims. About two weeks ago, the Kenyan ambassador in Khartoum was also summoned by the Sudan government to shed light on the saga.

And on Monday, a spokesman for the pirates, Mr Sugule Ali, told the Associated Press that Tomex Team boss Viktor Murenko had sent them a fax saying the company was ready to negotiate for the release of the ship and crew but not the weapons.

The ship has 20 crew members including two Russians, 17 Ukrainians and a Latvian.

Mr Wetang’ula is on record as having said that Kenya would neither negotiate with the pirates nor pay ransom for free the weapons.

The pirates have no capacity to offload the tanks which weigh over 40 tons but they can offload the rocket grenades, light weapons and ammunition.

Alternatively, they can dump the weapons into the sea but this could cause an environmental disaster as some of the weapons could be encased in depleted Uranium casings.

The weapons include 33 Russian made T-72 tanks, Rocket Propelled Grenades and other forms of ammunition.

A security expert, retired Captain Simiyu Werunga, said the company selling the weapons, Ukrinmash and the transporter are responsible for the cargo until it arrives at the port of Mombasa.

“International Maritime laws stipulate that the cargo is still in the possession of the trader and transporter until they are delivered at the port of entry,” he said.

Direct responsibility

That could mean that the Government would not bear direct responsibility for the cargo.

According to Ecoterra International, An NGO operating in Somalia, the cargo of the hijacked ship is also carrying14,000 rounds of tank ammunition which contain a depleted uranium penetrator.

A spokesman for the NGO, Dr Hans-Juergen Duwe said a major environmental disaster would be created around eight miles off coast of Somalia if the weapons are dumped into the sea.

Ammunition with depleted uranium casings have the potential long-term health effects due to the toxic heavy metal.

A majority of countries including Kenya are signatories to a resolution banning its proliferation.

Meanwhile, NATO warships on Monday began anti-piracy operations along the Somali coast in response to a United Nations request.

According to Reuters, NATO secretary-general Jaap De Hoop Scheffer said that the ships were already escorting a UN World Food Programme vessel scheduled to arrive at Mogadishu port on Tuesday.

Another ship delivering supplies to Burundian peacekeepers in Somalia had also been escorted to Mogadishu.