NATO joined a growing international force to protect vessels off Somalia's perilous coast Thursday, sending military ships to the treacherous waters where pirates are negotiating the release of an arms-laden tanker.
The pirates softened their ransom demands for the Ukrainian ship hijacked two weeks ago in a brazen high-seas attack. They have seized over two dozen ships off Somalia's coast this year, but the MV Faina has drawn the most international concern because of its dangerous cargo – 33 tanks and other heavy weapons.
“We are open for give-and-take negotiations,” pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told The Associated Press via satellite phone, as a helicopter buzzed overhead. Six U.S. warships have surrounded the boat, and a Russian frigate is expected within days.
Ali had vowed in earlier interviews never to reduce the ransom from $20 million.
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Despite his willingness to negotiate, Ali vowed to “cause a lot of problems for the world” if foreign powers use force to end the two-week standoff. If the ransom is paid, he said, the ship will be released.
NATO defense ministers meeting in Hungary agreed that a seven-ship force would be in the region within weeks.
“There will soon be NATO military vessels off the coast of Somalia, deterring piracy and escorting food ships,” NATO's chief spokesman James Appathurai said in Budapest.
Momentum has been growing for coordinated international action against the pirate menace after the seizure of the MV Faina. Several European Union countries last week said they would launch an anti-piracy patrol, and Russia announced it would cooperate with the West on fighting the pirates.
The U.N. Security Council this week called on countries to send naval ships and military aircraft, and U.S. warships are being diverted from counterterrorism duties to respond to the sea bandits.
Somalia's government has given foreign powers the freedom to use force against the pirates.