This time it’s the booty, not the pirates, that everyone’s talking about.
And what they’re wondering is: Just where were those Russian tanks going?
As additional U.S. warships gathered around a hijacked Ukrainian ship off Somalia, questions persisted Monday about where the vessel’s military cargo was destined.
The governments of Kenya and Ukraine say the shipment of 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks, ammunition and spare parts was part of a legal sale contracted last year to supply the Kenyan army.
But U.S. officials, arms experts and maritime officials say the more likely destination was southern Sudan, where the former rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or SPLM, governs an autonomous region and has been working aggressively over the last three years to transform its ragtag guerrilla army into a professional fighting force.
“We received reports that the cargo was intended for Sudan, so obviously our goal is to maintain watch over the ship while negotiations are taking place,” said Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.
He said “several” U.S. ships had surrounded the hijacked vessel Monday, but no further actions were planned.
Arms experts wondered why Kenya would purchase Russian-made tanks since its previous suppliers have been the United States, Britain and China. Kenya’s current tanks are British-built.
“I’m not aware of Kenya using any [former] Soviet bloc weaponry before, so if they are, that’s a major shift,” said one arms expert in the region who did not want to be identified.
Southern Sudan, by contrast, has been buying Russian-made tanks over the last year, officials said, including nearly 50 T-54 battle tanks. That deal drew attention in February when one shipment was briefly held up at the Kenyan port of Mombasa amid that country’s postelection turmoil.
Andrew Mwangura, head of the Seafarers Assistance Program in Kenya, said at least three arms shipments destined for southern Sudan had moved through Mombasa over the last year.
The Kenyan government, however, said Monday that the hijacked cargo was “important military equipment paid for by the Kenyan taxpayer for use by the Kenyan military.”
A government spokesman declined to comment on why the government was purchasing Russian-made tanks or how they fit into the country’s military strategy.
“We don’t discuss why we need arms,” spokesman Alfred Mutua said. He described allegations that the tanks might be sold or transferred to Sudan as “propaganda.”
“We have not had any tanks go from Kenya to Sudan. Kenya makes sure it’s not a conduit for any illegal arms,” he said.
Southern Sudanese officials could not be reached for comment Monday. One army official in the region was quoted over the weekend in a Sudanese newspaper as denying that the military goods were headed for the south.
But since signing a 2005 treaty with the Sudanese government that ended a 21-year north-south civil war, the SPLM has not hidden its desire to strengthen its former guerrilla army. It spends about half its budget on military training, salaries and supplies.
In addition to purchases and assistance from countries such as the U.S., Russia and Ethiopia, the new autonomous southern Sudanese government recently announced it might build its own air force.
Under the terms of the peace treaty, southern Sudan is permitted to operate and fund its own military, separate from the national army. The agreement does not prohibit southern Sudan from purchasing foreign weapons, nor is the region restricted by the United Nations arms embargo, which covers the Darfur region in western Sudan.
Recent skirmishes between Sudan’s northern and southern armies in the disputed oil-rich city of Abyei underscored the sense of urgency felt in the south to build up its forces in case the treaty collapses or combat resumes.
The northern army also receives heavy weapons from Russia and China and has its own manufacturing facilities for tanks.
The SPLM also wants a strong army to help enforce the results of a referendum planned for 2011, in which southern Sudanese might vote to separate from the north, analysts said.
Hijackers said Monday they were seeking $20 million for the release of the cargo and 20 hostages, according to Sugale Ali Omar Omar, who identified himself as one of the pirates and spoke in a phone interview. He said U.S. ships were about a mile away and warplanes were flying low over the ship.
One crew member has died of a suspected heart attack, but all others are safe, he said.
“We are ready if the foreign warships attack us,” he said. “If they fire on us, we will open what we have on them.”
Special correspondent Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.