Three Somali pirates were killed in a shootout between rivals aboard a hijacked Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks, a maritime group monitoring the situation said on Tuesday.
But the pirates denied any fighting on the MV Faina, seized six days ago in the most high-profile of a wave of hijackings off lawless Somalia this year. The pirates, under US navy surveillance, are demanding a $20 million ransom.
The East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, monitoring the hijacking via relatives of the crew and contacts with pirates, said that factions had argued over whether to free the cargo and crew.
“The radicals on board do not want to listen to anyone,” said Andrew Mwangura, an official of the maritime body.
“The moderates want to back-peddle. The Americans are close, so everyone is tense. There was a shootout and three of the pirates were shot dead.”
US navy ships are shadowing the boat, whose capture has sparked controversy over the destination of its cargo and thrown a spotlight on rampant piracy in one of the world’s busiest shipping areas connecting Europe to Asia and the Middle East.
The pirates denied there had been any fighting. “We have not fought among ourselves. Those are rumours spread by the media,” Mohamed, a pirate on board the Ukranian vessel, told Reuters.
Another gunman on a separate captured Greek ship nearby also said there had been no exchange of fire. “There is no fighting and all is well. There is a warship near us but it is watching us. It has been nearby but we have neither communicated nor exchanged fire,” said Mahad, a pirate.
The US navy has said the ship, which was heading for Kenya’s Mombasa port, was carrying T-72 tanks, grenade-launchers and ammunition ultimately bound for south Sudan via Kenya.
Kenya says the armoury was for its military. Taking advantage of chaos on shore, where an Islamist-led insurgency has raged for nearly two years, Somali pirates have seized more than 30 ships this year and attacked many more.