Kenya's foreign minister has dismissed a BBC report suggesting that a consignment of tanks and other military hardware aboard a hijacked Ukrainian ship was bound for South Sudan when it was seized by Somali pirates last month. The Kenyan government maintains that the Russian-made arms were being delivered to Kenya to be used by its military. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from Nairobi.
BBC News on Tuesday revealed what it said was a copy of the freight manifest aboard the hijacked ship, MV Faina.
The alleged manifest shows contract numbers for 33 T-72 tanks, grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns containing the initials GOSS, which is an abbreviation commonly used in the region to refer to the government of South Sudan. The manifest names Kenya's defense ministry as the consignee.
On Wednesday, Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula dismissed the BBC report, saying it failed to prove that the cargo aboard the hijacked freighter belongs to anyone other than the Kenyan military.
"I have been advised, and I stand properly advised, I believe, and I have no doubt that it is true, that GOSS means General Ordinance Supplies and Security, which is a code for our DoD [Department of Defense]," Wetangula said. "So, the BBC, I think, is engaged in unhelpful speculation on this matter."
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior Kenyan military official tells VOA that he has never heard of a code called General Ordinance Supplies and Security used in the armed forces.
Such contradictions are prompting rumors among Kenyans as to whether high-level officials are receiving kick-backs for allowing Ukrainian arms shipments to pass through Kenya. At least one other shipment, bound for southern Sudan, was allegedly off-loaded in the port of Mombasa late last year.
Kenya helped sponsor talks that ended Sudan's brutal 20-year civil war between the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army and the government in Khartoum. The warring parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, and are now distrustful partners in a unity government.
Although the peace accord requires South Sudan and Khartoum to consult each other about military purchases, regional arms experts say that stipulation is widely ignored by both sides.
Khartoum is believed to be buying aircraft and weapons from China, Russia and possibly Iran, and South Sudan has made no secret that it wants to build its guerrilla force into a professional army ahead of a referendum in 2011 that could see the oil-rich South split from the North.
Jane's Defense Weekly's military analyst Helmoed Heitman says, if the Kenyan government is secretly assisting South Sudan, he believes Nairobi is betting that there will be less chance for another regionally destabilizing war in Sudan, if the South were better armed.
"They see a greater likelihood of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement actually working post-2011, if the SPLA is militarily so strong that the Sudanese government feels it cannot just march in and take over," Heitman said. "Conceivably, if Khartoum's intelligence picked up early that the SPLA was creating a small-but-potent conventional force, they might have decided, 'the hell with the peace agreement, let's move in again with major forces, secure all the towns and make sure they cannot deploy anything.'"
Meanwhile, Reuters news agency says pirates holding the controversial cargo have lowered their ransom demand from $20 million to $8 million and are expecting the money to be paid in the next few days.
Pirates seized the freighter on September 26 as it sailed unescorted along the eastern coast of Somalia toward Mombasa.