Hijacked ship's cargo is a concern

U.S. helicopters on Monday buzzed a hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 Soviet-designed tanks and other weapons that officials fear could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia if the pirates are allowed to escape.

Thursday's seizure of the MV Faina off Somalia could bring dangerous effects across the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Piracy has become a lucrative criminal racket in impoverished Somalia, bringing in millions of dollars in ransom.

The pirates aboard the 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 T-72 tanks, rifles and ammunition.

The ship, anchored off Somalia's coast, apparently was destined for Sudan when armed pirates overtook it, likely from a speedboat, and climbed up the side of the ship.

Although the pirates have not been allowed to take anything off the Faina, they have been allowed to resupply, one U.S. official said. U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers have been deployed within 10 miles of the hijacked vessel and helicopters were circling overhead because of “great concern” over the possibility of the cargo falling “into the wrong hands,” said Lt. Nathan Christensen of the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.

Although analysts say the pirates will likely be unable to unload the tanks, the other military hardware or a huge ransom could exacerbate the two-decade-old civil war. The U.S. fears the armaments may end up with al-Qaida-linked Islamic insurgents who have been fighting the Somali transitional government since late 2006.