The pirates who hijacked an arms-laden Ukrainian tanker off Somalia issued an ultimatum Friday and threatened to destroy the ship if no ransom is paid, a spokesman for the bandits said.
The MV Faina is surrounded by U.S. warships, and a Russian frigate is heading toward the scene, raising the stakes for a possible commando-style raid on the ship. Pirates have seized more than two dozen ships this year off the Horn of Africa, but the hijacking of the Faina has drawn the most international concern because of its dangerous cargo.
The vessel is carrying 33 tanks and other heavy weapons.
Friday's threat was very unusual. Pirates operating off Somalia rarely harm their hostages, instead holding out for a ransom that often exceeds $1 million. But international pressure was mounting regarding the Faina hijacking, with NATO forces planning to deploy.
“We held a consultative meeting for more than three hours today and decided to blow up the ship and its cargo — us included — if the ship owners did not meet our ransom demand,” pirate Sugule Ali told The Associated Press when a reporter called the satellite telephone on board the ship.
He gave the ship owners until Monday night to pay. Ali had said Thursday he was willing to negotiate the ransom demand of $20 million, after nearly two weeks of insisting they would never lower the price.
“Either we achieve our goal and get the ransom or perish along with the ship, its crew and cargo,” Ali said.
There are 20 Ukrainian, Latvian and Russian crew members on board.
The ship's Russian captain died of a heart condition soon after the hijacking nearly two weeks ago, officials in Moscow say.
The U.S. Navy, which has six warships surrounding the Faina off the central coast of Somalia, had no comment on the pirates' threat Friday, said Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain and helps monitor Somalia's coast.
Momentum has been growing for coordinated international action against the pirate menace.
NATO ministers agreed Thursday that they would have seven ships in the area within two weeks. In addition to the six U.S. warships near the Faina, helicopters buzz overhead daily.
Russia also announced it would cooperate with the West in the fight, and several European countries have said they would launch an anti-piracy patrol.
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.
Ali said several fighter jets and a drone were hovering over the ship.
“It appears that they are readying for an operation,” he said. “Helicopters, fighter jets and an unmanned drone are constantly flying over us all day long … It is around-the-clock surveillance.”
Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said earlier that Ukraine does not want foreign countries to use power to take the ship. Most of the 20 remaining crew member aboard the Faina are Ukrainian.
“We are against a forceful scenario. We believe there need to be negotiations,” he said. “What is most important is people.”
Somalia has been impoverished by decades of conflict, and piracy by Somali gangs has emerged as a lucrative racket that brings in millions of dollars in ransoms.
A nation of around 8 million people, Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991.