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Somali Pirates Release Ship Carrying Controversial Arms Cargo

Somali pirates have released a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks and other weapons, after receiving a ransom payment of more than $ 3 million. The ship had been held off the coast of Somalia since September.

Pirates left the MV Faina following the payment of a $3.2 million ransom on Wednesday. The ship, which was ferrying 33 Soviet tanks, along with anti-aircraft weapons, grenade launchers, and other arms to the Kenyan port of Mombassa, had been anchored near the Somali port of Harardhere.

The ship's cargo has stirred considerable controversy. The Kenyan government has maintained the weapons are for its own use, but many observers, including diplomats in the region, have said the arms are destined for the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan.

Southern rebels signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government in 2005, with negotiations held in Kenya. But that deal appears increasingly shaky, and both the northern and southern Sudanese governments are believed to be building up their arms supplies with an eye to a possible return to conflict.

A senior researcher on arms transfers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Pieter Wezeman, says similar tanks from previous shipments to Mombassa have not been spotted by observers, either in Kenya or in Southern Sudan.

"If the Kenyan government has ordered them and has taken possession of them, as they should have, then you would in a way expect them to show them off somewhere, just to show that they have them. That has never happened. So it remains a mystery and the suspicion that they were intended for, or that they even have gone to, South Sudan remains. But there is no clear proof that they actually went there," said Wezeman.

U.S. naval ships are guarding the MV Faina, and the Ukrainian government has said that the ship will continue on to Mombassa. According to Weseman, the Kenyan government will have a difficult time keeping the destination of the weapons under wraps.

"Everyone knows about the ship, a lot of people are interested in what is on there. I think the Kenyan government will have a challenge to make it possible for people to follow the whereabouts of these tanks," he said.

Wezeman says that while the arms buildup by the northern Sudanese government in recent years has been well documented, there is little information available on weapons supplies to southern Sudan. But with estimates that military spending consumes around half of Southern Sudan's budget, few observers doubt that the southern government is importing significant quantities of arms as well.

Somali pirates captured 42 ships last year. They have captured an additional three since the start of 2009. In response to the wave of attacks, countries around the world have sent more than 20 ships to patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia.