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Kenyan Government Optimistic Somali Pirates Will Release Crew

The Kenyan government says it is confident that the mostly Kenyan crew of a ship hijacked late last month will soon be freed. The ship was bound for Somalia, where the hijackers are believed to be from. After the hijacking the World Food Program (WFP) has suspended all shipments of aid to Somalia.

Spokesman Alfred Mutua tells VOA his government is working hard to push for the release of the 10-member crew, eight of whom are Kenyans.

"We've contacted the Somali transitional government," said Mr. Mutua. "We also have contacted several people in Somalia who are in contact with the kidnappers. Our main contact is through the United Nations. It is the United Nations that is leading the negotiations."

Mr. Mutua says he believes the Somali gunmen, who hijacked the ship June 27, some 300 kilometers northeast of the capital, Mogadishu, will soon release the crew, but will likely keep the ship.

The ship, chartered by the World Food Program was carrying 850 tons of rice that was meant to feed 28,000 tsunami victims for two months.

The gunmen are now holding the cargo and crew, and are demanding that $500,000 be paid for its safe return.

As a result, the WFP Monday suspended all shipments of humanitarian assistance to Somalia because of the insecure waters off the coast.

The agency said it would review its suspension depending on the release of the detained relief food, vessel and crew.

In an earlier statement, the agency condemned the hijacking saying that, "it is against international humanitarian law to hinder the passage of humanitarian assistance and there is no justification for hijacking."

WFP spokeswoman Rene McGuffin told VOA last week that her agency is working through the local community to try to resolve the situation.

"We are encouraging those elders, those local authorities who can assist. We do believe that once people are aware of the fact that this is humanitarian assistance for Somalis who have had their livelihoods destroyed by the tsunami, once they learn that this is for them, we are hopeful that they will, in fact, let the food immediately proceed on its journey," she said.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become an increasingly serious problem. The International Maritime Bureau recently warned ships to stay anywhere from 80 to 160 kilometers away from the coastline, especially in the country's northeastern and eastern areas.

The WFP-chartered ship was sailing about 60 kilometers from shore when it was attacked.

The International Maritime Bureau says there had been at least five gun and grenade attacks within the past few months on ships passing Somalia's coastline.