U.S. and Russia race after pirates

For a moment, the pirates might have thought that they had really struck gold – Somalia-style.

The gun-toting, seafaring thieves, who routinely pounce on cargo ships in the Indian Ocean, suddenly found themselves in command of a vessel crammed with $30million worth of grenade launchers, piles of ammunition and 33 battle tanks.

But this time, they might have gotten far more than they bargained for. Unlike so many other hijackings off the coast of Somalia that have gone virtually unnoticed – and unpunished – the attack Thursday on the Faina, a Ukrainian vessel bringing military equipment to Kenya, has provoked the wrath of two of the most powerful militaries on the planet.

The U.S. Navy was pursuing the ship Friday. And the Russians were not far behind.

“This is really getting out of control,” said Mohammed Osman, a Somali government official in Kenya. “You see how many countries are involved now? These pirates aren't going to get away with this.”

Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline is crawling with pirates, a serious problem given that so much of the country is dependent on emergency food aid, which comes mostly by ship. Thieves seem to strike with increasing impunity, grabbing things ranging from sailing yachts to oil tankers. They then usually demand millions of dollars in ransom for the ships and their crews.

This year is one of the worst on record, with more than 50 ships attacked, 25 hijacked and at least 14 currently being held by pirates. The waters off Somalia are now considered the most dangerous in the world.

As for the Faina, it may have looked liked the kind of slow-moving prey that pirates have repeatedly attacked. But its booty was not the kind that can be easily pawned off at port.

Each tank weighs more than 80,000 pounds. The pirates would need special training and special equipment to offload them – assuming, of course, that they could make it to port safely with the Navy on their tail.

The Kenyan government, one of America's closest allies in Africa, had purchased about $30 million of arms from Ukraine.

The ship, which is registered in Belize, was supposed to pull into Kenya's Mombasa port on Monday. But around 5 p.m. Thursday, when the Faina was about 200 miles off shore, it was surrounded by three speedboats, according to the Interfax news service. Communication was suddenly cut off. It was a typical pirate tactic.

According to the Ukrainian foreign ministry's Web site, there were 21 people aboard, including 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and a Latvian.