Pirates holding a Ukrainian cargo ship loaded with tanks have sacked Somali middlemen trying to secure its release and are negotiating directly with the owners, an associate of the gang said on Thursday.
Gunmen from Somalia caused havoc in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes last year, hijacking dozens of ships and demanding tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments to free them.
The MV Faina was carrying 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks and other weapons when it was seized in September. The pirates initially demanded a $20 million ransom, lowered to $5 million.
Osman Farah, an onshore associate of the gang on the Faina, said his colleagues now expected more than $5 million after they sacked the middlemen negotiating on their behalf.
"Somali brokers had been delaying the process by reporting only half, or less, of the ransom being offered," Farah told Reuters by telephone from the coastal town of Haradheere.
"So the pirates are now directly negotiating with the Ukrainians and we hope things will be better now they are expecting more then $5 million and the ship will be freed soon."
The Faina's owners could not immediately be reached.
The hijackings have raised insurance costs, prompted some owners to go around South Africa instead of via the Suez Canal and triggered an unprecedented deployment by foreign navies.
Last week the pirates released a Saudi Arabian supertanker, the Sirius Star, after a $3 million ransom was parachuted onto its deck. The vessel was carrying crude oil worth $100 million.
In a Reuters interview on Saturday, Somalia's interim President Sheikh Aden Madobe said ransom payments only encouraged piracy.