NAIROBI, Kenya — As additional U.S. warships gathered around a hijacked Ukrainian ship off the coast of 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, according to representatives of both nations.
But U.S. officials, arms experts and maritime officials say the more likely destination was southern Sudan, where the former rebel group Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement now governs an autonomous region and has been working aggressively over the last three years to transform its 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 questioned why Kenya would purchase Russian-made tanks given that its previous suppliers have been the United States, Britain and China. Kenya's current tanks are British-built.
U.S. helicopters buzzed the Ukrainian freighter MV Faina and warships from the U.S. 5th Fleet steamed to within a few miles of the vessel, which was seized Thursday by the pirates.
The hijacking off Somalia, a failed state seen as a key battleground in the war on al-Qaida-linked terrorists, could bring dangerous effects across the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The pirates aboard the Ukrainian-operated freighter are demanding $20-million to release the ship, its 21 crew members, one of whom has died of an apparent heart attack, and its cargo of tanks, rifles and ammunition.