The controversy surrounding the final destination of a cargo of military hardware aboard a ship being held by Somali pirates has deepened with the arrest of the Kenyan official, who broke the news that the consignment was headed for South Sudan, not Kenya. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has the latest on this story from Nairobi.
The arrest of East Africa Seafarers Association's Program Director Andrew Mwangura late Wednesday in Mombasa threw another spotlight on the government's statement that 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks, heavy weapons and ammunition aboard the hijacked Ukrainian freighter belongs to Kenya.
Mwangura was the first to report that the pirates had documents, which showed the cargo was to be off-loaded in Mombasa and then taken to South Sudan. The pirates, who seized the vessel off the east coast of Somalia eight days ago and are seeking a multi-million-dollar ransom, have neither confirmed nor denied Mwangura's claim.
Separately, the U.S. Navy and defense officials in Washington said that they, too, had reports that the military cargo on the freighter was destined for Sudan. Mwangura have told the media that several other military shipments in the past year were sent to the southern Sudanese town of Juba through the port in Mombasa.
Kenyan and foreign media groups, quoting their own military sources and Western arms experts, have widely reported that South Sudan is believed to have more than 100 Russian-made tanks in its arsenal while the Kenyan military has none.
On Thursday, the maritime official appeared in court in Mombasa, charged with making false and alarming statements to the media. He was also charged with possessing $3 worth of marijuana and ordered to be held until his next court appearance on Tuesday.
Kenyan government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, said the government is investigating what links Mwangura may have with the Somali pirate group holding the ship.
"He is assisting the government in investigations because he appears to have direct connections with the pirates, who have been hijacking ships," he said. "Pirates appear to call him directly or he has access to people, who have directly access to the pirates. He has appeared the last few times to be their official spokesman."
Mwangura has been a key source of information for many groups, including journalists, on ship hijackings taking place off the coast of Somalia. He has said that his sources include pirates and their families, but that is not unusual. Many media organizations, including VOA, can easily reach pirates and people who know them via mobile and satellite telephones.
Kepta Ombati, the director of a regional human rights group called the East Africa Social Justice Fund Organization, says he was not surprised to learn that the outspoken maritime official had been arrested.
"We believe Mwangura is telling the truth because there is a possibility that this is part of the arms-running, which has been fueling conflicts around the region and probably the people who are involved in this arms trade are deeply embedded within the government," he said. "Always predictable for a government that is trying to hide very sensitive information is to persecute a whistleblower."
Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua insists the arms shipment is legitimate and was ordered for the Kenyan military.
"The bill of lading clearly shows that it is ours," he said. "When it gets here and we have got the end-user certificate, we are going to give it to you and you will have to eat what they call humble pie."
As many as six U.S. Navy destroyers, cruisers, and amphibious ships are near the captured freighter, anchored about 11 kilometers off the town of Hobyo in central Somalia. Navy officials say their goal is to make certain that the ship's 20 hostages are safe and the cargo does not fall into the wrong hands.