The captain of an arms-laden Ukrainian cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates appealed Monday for its Israeli owner to engage in direct talks with its captors and end its crew's 15-week ordeal.
Speaking to AFP by satellite telephone from the MV Faina, Vladimir Nikolsky complained that no direct contact had been made by the owner with the leader of the pirates since the vessel was seized on September 25.
"I think Vadim Alperin, the real ship owner, doesn't know the real situation.... The owner's representative I think has been hiding information from him," said Nikolsky in his first interview since the hijacking.
The MV Faina -- a 152.5 metre (500 foot) blue-hulled Ukrainian vessel, sailing under a Belize flag of convenience -- was carrying 33 Soviet-type T-72 battle tanks, other weapons and ammunition.
Its captain Vladimir Kolobkov died in unclear circumstances two days after the ship's capture, leaving second mate Nikolsky -- who was contacted by AFP and spoke under the watch of his captors -- in charge.
The ship's cargo sparked controversy. Kenya said it was the intended recipient of the weapons, but several other sources said the cargo was in fact destined for the forces of South Sudan.
Nikolsky said that attempts to negotiate the ship's release, involving a flurry of middlemen, had failed due to a lack of determination to free the crew.
"The leader of the pirates Mohammed Abdi is ready to establish contact with the ship's owner and he now refuses to make any contact with any other party," he said.
Nikolsky said the crew -- a Latvian, two Russians and 17 Ukrainians -- were being decently treated, but stressed nevertheless that their ongoing captivity is taking its toll.
"The whole of the crew has been collected in a small room for more than three months. It's a very hard psychological situation. It's hard to stay in good health," said the captain, a Russian national.
"They are staying in a small room without moving, without any physical exercise.... Half of the crew is ill and the other half of the crew is going to go mad."
The MV Faina was headed to Kenya's main port Mombasa when it was captured. It had only just enough fuel and supplies to reach its destination.
According to sources close to the pirates, the body of the deceased captain Kolobkov is being kept in the same refrigerator where the crew and pirates keep some of their food.
"We use the same provisions as the pirates," Nikolsky said. "Provisions are very poor. We eat one time in the evening and also we are given some water and sometimes we drink tea."
Saeed Hasan, a Somali academic acting as an intermediary and translator for the pirates, told AFP that medical attention is needed aboard the ship.
"We want a doctor and we want humanitarian assistance," he said, adding that Alperin should enter into direct talks with the pirates.
The MV Faina has been held longer than any other cargo ship since an upsurge in Somali piracy in recent years. A Nigerian tug boat captured six months ago is also being held.
"Direct contact from the ship owner is the only solution.... The owner created his own problem by resorting to unknown Somali and other foreign intermediaries for the negotiations," Saeed Hasan said.
Nikolsky said Alperin's direct involvement could yield a breakthrough.
"In this case, he (the leader of the pirates) thinks that the mediation will run quick and successfully," he said.
"I want to address our best wishes to our families and say that we are healthy but that we are here while our families are so far from us."
There are an estimated 1,500 pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean -- mainly fishermen and former coastguards who have turned Somalia's waters into one of the world's most dangerous.
The pirates who took the MV Faina are from the same clan as those who captured the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker with two million barrels of oil which was released on January 9, almost eight weeks after it was hijacked.