Officials in Kenya and South Sudan are denying reports that a shipment of tanks and other military equipment was headed for Sudan when it was seized by Somali pirates last week. The reports have prompted questions about whether the Kenyan government is assisting South Sudan in its efforts to strengthen its army before a 2011 referendum on secession from the North. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
In a telephone interview with VOA, the South Sudan army Chief of General Staff Oyay Deng Ajak said the former rebel group has nothing to do with the consignment of 33 refurbished Russian-built tanks and other arms that are aboard a hijacked Ukrainian freighter off the coast of Somalia.
"The content does not belong to us. All the documents - even the Kenyans themselves, they have publicly announced that the ship(ment) belongs to them," Ajak said.
Questions about the cargo and where it was headed arose after Somali pirates seized the ship last Thursday as it sailed toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa. The pirates are demanding $20 million for the release of the ship and its 20 crew members.
On Monday, the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said it believed the cargo's final destination was Sudan, not Kenya.
A maritime official based in Mombasa, Andrew Mwangura, told reporters earlier that pirates found documents that showed the T-72 tanks, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition were destined for South Sudan. Mwangura added that four other military shipments for South Sudan passed through Mombasa port in the past year.
In the Kenyan media, government spokesman Alfred Mutua and defense ministry spokesman Bogita Ongeri dismissed Mwangura's report as baseless, insisting that the seized cargo was being delivered to Kenya for use by its military.
Mwangura says what he disclosed must have been highly sensitive because he received a follow-up call from the police commissioner in Mombasa.
"The commissioner called and said, 'Do not talk to the media about this issue.' I do not know why they want to kill this story," Mwangura said.
Nairobi's claim of ownership of the cargo raised eyebrows among arms experts in the region, who note that Kenya's military suppliers are Britain, China, and the United States and there is no record of any Kenyan military personnel being trained to operate Russian-built tanks.
South Sudan, on the other hand, receives military assistance from both the United States and Russia and is said to be eager to equip its army in preparation for a possible renewed conflict with the government in Khartoum.
Although the delivery of the tanks and arms to South Sudan does not violate international arms control rules, it has the potential to unravel a peace deal the southern rebels signed with Khartoum in 2005 to end the country's two-decade-long civil war. The accord states that one side must consult the other before making any military purchases.
It also gives the South autonomy until 2011, when a referendum will be held to determine secession from the North. But most of the country's oil reserves lie in the South, and there is fear that Khartoum, which has been purchasing aircraft and weapons from Russia and China to fill its own arsenal in recent years, may not allow southern Sudan to become independent.
Kenyan government and military officials declined to speak to VOA about the controversy surrounding the seized arms shipment.