MOGADISHU, Somalia — As a heavily armed U.S. destroyer patrolled nearby and planes flew overhead Sunday, a Somali pirate spokesman said his group was demanding a $20-million ransom to release a cargo ship loaded with Russian tanks.
The spokesman also warned that the pirates would fight to the death if any country tried military action to regain the ship, and a man who said he was the ship's captain reported that one crew member had died.
Pirates seized the Ukrainian-operated ship Faina off the coast of Somalia on Thursday as it headed to Kenya carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks and a substantial amount of ammunition and spare parts. The ordnance was ordered by the Kenyan government.
The guided missile destroyer USS Howard was stationed off the Somali coast Sunday, making sure that the pirates did not remove the tanks, ammunition and other heavy weapons from the ship, which was anchored off the coast.
In a rare gesture of cooperation, the Americans appeared to be keeping an eye on the Faina until the Russian missile frigate Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, reaches the area. The Russian ship was in the Atlantic on Sunday, the Russian navy reported.
Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said he was speaking Sunday from the deck of the Faina via a satellite phone — and verified his location by handing the phone over to the ship's captain.
"We want ransom, nothing else. We need $20-million for the safe release of the ship and the crew," Ali said, adding that "if we are attacked, we will defend ourselves until the last one of us dies."
A man who said he was the captain of the seized ship and who identified himself as Viktor Nikolsky said a Russian crew member died Sunday because of hypertension.
"The rest of us are feeling well," Nikolsky said, adding that he could see three ships about a mile away, including one carrying an American flag.
Pirate attacks worldwide have surged this year and Africa remains the world's top hot spot, with 24 reported attacks in Somalia and 18 in Nigeria this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.