Officials in east Africa say three pirates have been killed aboard a hijacked Ukrainian vessel off the coast of Somalia, after gunfire broke out among the pirates who seized the ship.
A spokesman for an African maritime organization, Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, says Tuesday two rival groups of pirates exchanged gunshots after arguing over whether to surrender the vessel.
The pirates, reached by satellite phone, have denied this account.
The hijackers have been demanding a $20 million ransom, and have threatened to kill the hostages if the money is not paid.
The U.S. Navy says it has dispatched warships to the area to keep a close watch on the hijackers.
The ship is carrying a cargo of 33 tanks and other military equipment in waters off Somalia.
Navy officials say they do not want to see the cargo offloaded into the wrong hands.
About 60 Somali pirates seized the Ukrainian-operated ship Thursday with its crew of Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans as it sailed toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
There are conflicting reports about the planned final destination of the cargo. A U.S. Navy spokesman, Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, says reports indicate the cargo was headed to Sudan. But Kenyan officials say the cargo belongs to Kenya's military.
With permission from the pirates, a Russian hostage (First Mate Viktor Nikolsky) confirmed to VOA via satellite telephone that the ship's Russian captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, had died of natural causes.
One of the Haradhere-based pirates Sugule Ali told VOA that his group has no intention of keeping or selling the ship's cargo. He says they are only interested in securing the ransom.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.